In the quest to cultivate a happier, healthier, and more productive workplace, the starting point always leads to the fundamental domain of mental health. Understanding the factors that impact mental well-being at work is crucial, but equally vital is discerning the measures companies are implementing to support their employees in this critical aspect. This article explores the multifaceted nature of mental health in the workplace and outlines a three-tiered approach for promoting and maintaining it. While most companies predominantly focus on individual resilience and well-being, there is much more to be explored. This article delves into the lesser-known aspects, offering insights and guidance for leaders to bring about positive change in the realm of mental health within their organizations.
Statistics tell a compelling story about the state of mental health in the workplace. Over the last decade, Germany witnessed a 56% surge in the number of days lost to mental illness. Remarkably, there was no similar increase in overall sick leave during the same period. Stress-related issues have even led 16% of professionals to quit their jobs, according to a survey by Korn Ferry. In the United States, a staggering 52% of respondents experienced burnout in 2021, representing a 21% increase from pre-COVID levels. The Employee Burnout Report from Indeed reinforces this concerning trend. Deloitte’s study in the UK unveils the immense financial impact of poor mental health on employers, with annual costs soaring by 25% to reach an estimated total of £53-56 billion in 2020-21.
Stress’s impact on productivity and mental health at work can be imagined as a vortex. When employees feel stressed, their enthusiasm wanes, leading to procrastination and over-reliance on deadlines for motivation. This results in rushed, error-prone work, as team members attempt to power through tasks. Pessimism about outcomes and personal abilities further compounds the issue. As leaders, finding ways to prevent team members from spiralling into this vortex is imperative.
There is a glimmer of hope as organizations increasingly recognize the importance of mental health. In 2021, PwC reported that 53% of US employers introduced mental health programs to address COVID-19-related concerns. However, these initiatives, while commendable, often revolve around individuals. They equip employees with coping skills, prepare them to face challenges, and cultivate an action-oriented mindset. While these are valuable, they only scratch the surface, failing to address the root causes of workplace stress and burnout.
The second lever in the pursuit of better mental health at work is leadership. Leaders play a vital role in supporting their team members‘ well-being and mental health. However, they often find themselves caught between the needs of their teams and the expectations of higher-ups.
The third pillar for sustained mental health at work is the work itself. The structure and design of processes and operations can either facilitate work or introduce stressors like excessive bureaucracy and duplicated efforts. Daily and weekly tasks, when executed with adequate autonomy and support, can enhance employees‘ well-being and productivity. Systems and tools, along with the physical work environment, play a significant role in reducing workplace stressors.
An insightful case study reveals how the three pillars of Employee, Leader, and Work interconnect. An HR leader noted a low well-being score in their annual employee survey, despite the organization’s significant investment in mental health support. Workshops with employees uncovered the root causes of their dissatisfaction. While they appreciated the well-being offerings, issues with leadership and communication within the organization significantly impacted their stress levels. Consequently, the employees perceived the well-being initiatives as tokenistic. This case highlights the importance of investigating and addressing the root causes of mental health issues.
To create a genuinely happier, healthier, and more productive workplace, companies must employ a comprehensive approach to mental health. This approach incorporates the well-being of individuals, empowerment of leaders, and the redesign of work processes. By tackling the problem at its roots, organizations can effectively address and rectify the underlying issues, ultimately fostering a more supportive and resilient work environment.
(This article is based on a chapter in Better Work: A Leader’s Guide to Creating Happier, Healthier, and More Productive Workplaces.)