Today, as many of you know, is World Mental Health Day, a day to talk about mental health issues to raise awareness and eliminate the stigma surrounding what is really a common occurrence. Even in the workplace.
Let’s start with an infographic:
So, a couple of thoughts on this to start out with.
Obviously, the increased rates of burnout, anxiety and depression during the current times are not that surprising. The last couple of years have been rough on everyone. What might surprise some of you in management is the 84% that see the workplace actually adding to that, and that is especially true for younger and minority groups.
So, while it’s easy to point at a pandemic for the increase, we need to recognize that our workplaces have been adding to it, in a number of ways.
First, as discussed further in the accompanying HBR article, we are doing more to normalize talking about mental health, which is good. What we haven’t done is the hard work of culture change, specifically in two areas, first in making sure our leaders and others have a proper understanding of how to help:
Organizations have to train leaders, managers, and all employees on how to navigate mental health at work, have difficult conversations, and create supportive workplaces. Managers are often the first line in noticing changes and supporting their direct reports. Building an environment of psychological safety is key. Mental health policies, practices, culturally competent benefits, and other resources must be put in place and (over)communicated.
Investing in DEI to support employee mental health and address its intersectionality is also crucial. Black and AAPI employees have been hit especially hard by the trauma of systemic racism and violence. Workers who are caregivers — often mothers — have faced school closures and the associated burnout. Our study found that allowing employees to discuss challenging social and political topics at work is also part of a mentally healthy culture. At the grassroots level, employees should be empowered to form mental health employee resource groups (ERGs)and other affinity groups, become mental health champions, and start peer listening initiatives.
Secondly, we also haven’t done the hard work of truly changing the way we work:
More sustainable ways of working.
Employers must change their ways of working to be more sustainable — it’s time. A critical component is providing flexibility, which many workers experienced with remote work for the first time during the pandemic. Respondents reported that their company’s return-to-office plans were negatively impacting their mental health. The top two reasons given were the policies around in-person versus remote work (41%) and the lack of work-life balance or flexibility based on the policy (37%).
Look, the return to work is hurting some people, for a couple of reasons. You’ve got employees who’ve been working from home, giving them some options around childcare, and adult care that they haven’t had before. Forcing them back to the office is adding the stress of finding help, and what they’re going to do when their help isn’t available. Schools and child care centers are still dealing with COVID19, meaning your kid might suddenly need to be home to quarantine, or because the school is temporarily remote. You’ve got employees with high-risk medical conditions, and you’ve got employees with sick family members. Employees need to know that with all of that uncertainty in their situations, their workplace will be flexible to let them take care of the things that, as I have said before, are more important than work.
Younger employees also need to be included in the workplace even when they are remote. Many places successfully switched to remote working, found that things kept going, and now want to provide that as a benefit, but haven’t really changed the way they manage, and reward employees. Managers haven’t really been trained in how to navigate having a remote team, and thus they continue to do things the way they always have, rewarding the folks they see “working more”, aka putting in the extra hours, instead of the ones who are most effective. They see the male with a stay-at-home wife, or the one without kids, who’s always available to respond to emails at any hour, as being dedicated to the job, and they are. What they don’t see are the folks with family commitments, or the younger employees who are new and unfamiliar to them, or the ones working a second job, being as available, so they don’t recognize the work they do put in. They’ve never moved past noticing who comes into the office early and stays late as their measure of good employees. It is beyond time to stop that and to start managing in a more effective manner. Not just because it’s outdated and useless, but because it is literally doing harm to your employees. It is actually causing so much of the burnout that we are witnessing and is counter to all the words we put out about our commitment to diversity.
Again though, this isn’t just the fault of direct managers. Our organizations have not done enough to teach people about better ways to manage. We’ve not done enough to teach them how to actually measure the effectiveness of employees beyond a few lifestyle traits that will always put certain kinds of people with certain life situations at a disadvantage, just like we haven’t done enough to teach them about supporting employee mental health. We’ve thrown some money at some resources to show how much we care, without doing the hard work. What the results of this study show me is that there is a massive problem, that we are only rearranging some deck chairs to deal with.
Without a commitment to serious, structural change, your managers will continue to work the way they always have. That’s what got them to management, after all, putting in the extra hours, being seen, being loud enough to be heard and to stand out. Having the privilege to be able to put their career above other obligations because someone else took care of those, fitting in with the managers above them, etc.
Does any of that sound like the diverse, flexible workplace that you claim you want to be? Does any of that sound fair to people who don’t match a certain description? Does any of it really provide support and flexibility for employees in a difficult time?
Then maybe it shouldn’t be the future of our workplace, and maybe, just maybe, all those people leaving, would stop if you could offer them some other alternative.
Some more reading on the subject –
“Work burnout happened to me when I worked at a large corporation and realized that although I was putting in long hours, doing good work, and it looked good on paper — I was going nowhere,” says Alexis, 38, who works in the PR industry. “Then I saw a meme [that said] ‘if you died tomorrow, your job would be posted faster than your obituary,’ and it sucked all the joy out of everything I did.”
“Burnout happens when work consumes your mind outside of the office, yet your only opportunity for a long time is to tread water while killing yourself,” she says.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If companies make a concerted effort to better understand why employees are leaving and take meaningful action to retain them, the Great Attrition could become the Great Attraction. By seizing this unique moment, companies could gain an edge in the race to attract, develop, and retain the talent they need to create a thriving postpandemic organization.
But this won’t be easy, because it requires companies and their leaders to truly understand their employees. It requires leaders to develop a much deeper empathy for what employees are going through and to pair that empathy with the compassion—and determination—to act and change. Only then can employers properly reexamine the wants and needs of their employees—together with those employees—and begin to provide the flexibility, connectivity, and sense of unity and purpose that people crave.
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