Have you noticed that the media seems to be awash with reports of work-induced mental health issues across a whole range of professions? Teachers, members of the Police Force, and doctors have all had their headline. As these reports of burnout, work-related anxiety and depression, compassion fatigue and PTSD continue to rise, it must be time for employers to start waking up to the needs of their workforce.
Constant change, pressure and relentless demands have become commonplace features of the modern workplace. Along with role uncertainty, difficult relationships and poor management, these factors have been found to contribute to rising mental health problems, whilst also negatively impacting resilience and well-being.
Why is employee well-being suffering?
When people feel a lack of control over their experiences and choices, when there is a lack of clarity over their role or function within the business, or when there are systemic threats and challenges to their status on a regular basis, well-being suffers. This can then contribute to a range of mental health problems, a loss of the ability to function well at work, and, at worst, rising sickness absence rates.
However, despite improvements in mental health awareness at work, stigma still exists and employees remain unlikely to cite their mental health as a reason for sick leave. They may also feel under pressure to come into work even when they are not well. Carrying on regardless of illness in this way (presenteeism) undermines well-being, reduces opportunity for recovery and ultimately can lead to burn out and the need for extended time off work.
In turn, this means that productivity and organisational goals begin to suffer. Recent reports on mental health at work highlight the challenges faced by employers, the increasing costs of time lost due to mental health problems and the impact of presenteeism on productivity. However, as highlighted by previous Government reports stating that more should be done to protect the well-being of employees, when these factors are managed in a sensitive, proactive and emotionally intelligent way the risks to employees and organisations are greatly reduced.
What needs to change?
For greater well-being at work, employees need to feel valued, supported and safe. This is a set of basic human needs that must be met in order for people to feel calm and able to thrive. Outside work, we understand how important positive relationships with family and friends are for our resilience and well-being. We know that these people have our back when the going gets tough and that we can turn to them when we need support. From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense, as living in social groups provides a survival advantage by creating safety in numbers. But leaders and organisations don’t often apply the same logic to work relationships.
Working together in cohesive groups allows us to weather the storms that may arise around us. Our managers play a vital role in group cohesion by building trust, encouraging and modelling prosocial behaviours and valuing and appreciating staff. Research shows that when we trust our managers and feel valued and supported at work, we feel motivated to play our part, to contribute to the goals of the group and to co-operate with our peers. This ultimately improves our well-being and resilience as we feel able to acknowledge when we are struggling and can access support at an earlier point.
The problem is that trustworthy leaders and safe, supportive work environments do not materialize out of no-where. Often the characteristics valued in leaders, are not the characteristics of a person who is able to create safety and care about staff. In the past, managers may have been selected for their single-mindedness or focus, their ability to push staff or to meet targets at all costs.
So, what can employers do?
Creating a workplace environment that fosters employee well-being and opens people up to thriving has to come from the top down. The top tiers of management need to set in place initiatives that prioritise and promote employee well-being at all levels.
Changing the rhetoric around mental health is an important first step. Using the so-called soft skills of emotional and social intelligence to connect with staff and build trust is key to promoting well-being.
Leaders who are open about their values, make decisions and act in accordance with what they say is important to them, create a culture of predictability, reliability and authenticity. These ingredients build a sense of containment and trust that are needed to promote and maintain well-being.
It is crucial that leaders remember that trust takes time to build, but can be broken in an instant. Investing in relationships with staff is essential to the promotion of well-being. Acknowledging when we get it wrong also plays an important role in healing breaches of trust.
A growing number of businesses are really embracing their responsibility to nurture their employee’s physical and emotional well-being. Alongside the already relatively common initiatives, such a flexi-time and enhanced leave, some workplaces now offer healthy activities that employees can take advantage of whilst at work. These initiatives range from access to complimentary healthy food, weekly yoga classes, and onsite gyms, to massages, relaxation-focused break out areas and resilience training.
You don’t have to go to these kinds of lengths to promote well-being among your employees though. Simple things, such as, encouraging people to talk about how they are feeling, ensuring everyone takes enough breaks throughout their working day, and bolstering team relationships can be sufficient to give the message that you care and to create safety.