LagomWorks Research Series: September 2020
Employee Wellbeing in the Spotlight
A couple of years ago, I decided to retire from my corporate career. I was in my late 30s. I had not found a higher (or different) calling. I just felt burnt out. This decision seemed incomprehensible to many. A year later, in April 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has recognised ‘burnout’ as an ‘occupational phenomenon’, a legitimate health syndrome. And, ironically, made me feel less crazy (pun intended) for taking that decision.
A seminal paper in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour defines burnout as 'a reaction to chronic occupational stress characterized by emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and a lack of professional efficacy (i.e., the tendency to evaluate one’s work negatively)'. Unfortunately, the experience of being burnt out is fairly common these days. These trends are however not new. The findings from Deloitte’s External Marketplace Survey in 2018, indicated that 77% of respondents experienced employee burnout in their current job, with more than half citing more than one occurrence.
The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’s Labour Force Survey found that 54% of all working days lost in 2018/2019 were on account of work-related stress, depression or anxiety. Closer home, in 2019, Cigna released the results of its 360 Well-Being Survey – Well and Beyond. The Cigna 360 Well-Being Survey conducted across 22 countries witnessed participation of 13,200 people. The survey revealed that stress levels in India remain very high compared to other developed and emerging countries such as the USA, UK, Germany, France and Australia. Almost 82% of India’s population are suffering from stress. The major causes of stress in the country today are work, health, and finance related issues. One in eight Indians have serious troubles dealing with stress but nearly 75% of the Indian respondents said they don't feel comfortable talking to a medical professional about their stress.
There are several reasons for not seeking help.
Historically, mental illness has always been associated with a social stigma. The shame and ignominy is associated with not just the afflicted person, but the entire family. Under the efforts of various psychologists and social reformers mental illness and associated disorders have been studied, their biochemical basis explored and to some extent demystified. But even today the cures, while they focus on both therapy and medications, continue to come with their own set of problems in unpredictable results and addictions.
While the lack of awareness keeps social stigma alive, and the efficacy of the cures remains in question, are we correct in expecting organizations to turn evangelists for mental well-being?
And while mental well-being remains so elusive for individuals to achieve for themselves, are we correct in expecting organizations to perform any better?
Interestingly, it was organizations and corporates that have been at the forefront in de-stigmatizing mental illness, and bringing conversations around promotion of mental health and wellness out into the open. The driving factor was not so much as a higher purpose to start a revolution, but rather an increase in productivity.
Employee wellness started drawing attention decades ago with a specific focus on employee physical health and safety. One of the earliest examples dates back to 1879 when The Pullman Company introduced an athletic programme. In 1926, Ford introduced a 40-hour work week limit, under the impression that encouraging work/life balance would make employees more productive. Over time, there has been an increased understanding of the links between employee wellness and business productivity, and ultimately business results. This strengthened the inference that those organisations that positively impact wellness are likely to engaged employees which will serve as a competitive advantage. Gallup’s continuing research on employee engagement and growth finds that work units in the top quartile in employee engagement outperform bottom-quartile units by 10% on customer ratings, 22% in profitability, and 21% in productivity. Work units in the top quartile also saw significantly lower turnover.
There is also a better understanding of the internal and external factors which influence wellbeing at work. Gradually, but surely, the definition of wellness has expanded to include not only the protection of employee physical health, but also to actively boosting performance, as well as, social and emotional well-being. The wide range of wellness offerings by organizations now include innovative programs and tools for financial wellness, mental health, healthy diet and exercise, mindfulness, sleep, and stress management.
Well-being is increasingly becoming a core responsibility under good corporate citizenship and a critical Talent strategy to drive employee engagement and organizational energy.
From an optional or narrowly focused element of the Total Rewards menu, well-being has emerged at the front and centre as a business imperative for high-performance companies. Several developments in the past two decades have contributed to this rise in focus on employee well-being.
01) Changing Workforce
Millennials and GenZ workers are more educated and aware of the impact that long hours and stress have on their health and wellbeing.
They are therefore making non-negotiable demands of their employers. As per the 2019 Cigna 360 Well-Being Survey – Well and Beyond, a whopping 87% of the respondents said that workplace wellness programmes are important in choosing between two potential employers. Globally, only 36 % respondents claim to have access to workplace wellness programmes; India fares much better with 66% respondents claiming to have access. However, 71% of all respondents feel that these programmes still concentrate on physical health at the expense of mental well-being.
The 2018 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends survey also uncovered that 70% of professionals surveyed feel that employers may be missing the mark when it comes to developing well-being programs that their employees find valuable to address stress in the workplace. Interestingly, 87% of professionals surveyed also say they have passion for their current job, but 64% of these say they are frequently stressed, dispelling the myth that passionate employees are immune to stress or burnout. The figure below noted the large gap between what is being offered by employers through well-being programmes, and what is actually valued by employees.
02) Changing Workplace
In 2014, Deloitte published an article on 'The Overwhelmed Employee', noting that information overload and the always-connected 24/7 work environment are overwhelming workers, undermining productivity and contributing to low employee engagement. The recommendation was to lead efforts to manage the pervasive communications practices that overwhelm employees, simplify the work environment, create more flexible work standards, and teach managers and workers how to prioritize efforts. At that time, 44% of corporate executives surveyed had said that they are 'not ready' to deal with this issue.
Ready or not, the New Normal under the Covid-19 pandemic, has provided the impetus for action. The compulsory work-from-home restrictions have exacerbated the already overwhelming situation, with majority of employees saying that they have started working more hours. The lines between work and home have blurred to being non-existent. Supporting employees to prioritize, simplify, and to even simply switch off and take a break has become critical to survival.
In a recent survey of 2,000 working adults, financial services company Canada Life found that 46% of employees now working from home feel more pressure to be present. This partially stems from a lack of visibility, with 24% admitting they feel the need to prove they are working every day. Since it’s harder to demonstrate value or productivity when working remotely, many employees are pushing themselves harder than ever. What is greatly worrying is that 15% say they are taking fewer breaks and 12% have stopped taking breaks altogether. During a traditional workday in the office, a lot of breaks were natural during the day, from walking back to your desk after a meeting, to chatting with a colleague who stopped by your desk, to social activities. Now the entire day can feel like one long slog.
During a period when employees may already be dealing with higher stress levels on account of health, financial anxiety, and emotional exhaustion, this added pressure to be seen working hard could impair their mental health and morale further. In turn, this will hurt productivity and engagement.
03) Changing Triggers
We live in exciting times. New discoveries are being made, new gadgets invented and new technologies are replacing existing technologies at an incredible pace. These are exciting times, but they are also alienating, disorienting and turbulent times. The fast pace of innovations is driven in part by our increasing specialization.
Professionals and organizations have gone into sub, sub, sub- specializations, in search of that ‘niche’ area of expertise. This can impact mental health in two primary ways. It socially distances one from people, as fewer colleagues, friends or family actually understand what one does. But more worryingly, it creates business models where there is phenomenal stress and pressure to corner a segment, make large profits quickly before a me-too product or service appears to undercut you, or a black swan event or disruptive innovation makes your entire existence obsolete.
To this you can add the torrent of open information, ideas and opinions over the internet and social media, and we have enough stress to shake the most balanced of minds. One bad customer service incident can take a life of its own over social media, and destroy a small business, or even seriously dent the reputation of a large organization. Managing this real time feedback is straining the resources of many organizations.
While social media appeared as a boon for connectedness and freedom of expression, it is now being analysed more for its negative impact on individuals, organizations and even socio-political processes.
The criticism is led by social media industry experts themselves, however there are no actual solutions anywhere close to implementation. The impact of this commercially driven industry on society is apparent in the rise of fake news, trolling and bullying, and a general increase in social anxiety and tensions all around. Social anxiety is closely connected to the need for social assurance in individuals. Where at one end individuals are click-bait for commercial and politically motivated content, they are also addicted to seeking validation from virtual networks. The pressure is on to keep up, appear successful and happy – in the social media newsfeeds. Ironically, the more outgoing the newsfeeds become, the greater the loneliness, low self-esteem and alienation faced.
While this last trigger for mental disorders is beyond the purview of the organization, it is critical to be aware of it, and prepared to make investments to counteract it. Employee mental health not only affects quality of life for the employee, but also quality of work, productivity and company culture. In short, mental health support for employees is an investment that leads to significant, long-term payoffs. Neglecting it could be devastating.
In fact, organizations are most optimally placed to create a culture of mental well-being.
As noted earlier in this article, organizations and corporates have been trailblazers in championing the call for mental health and wellness. Workplace programmes have shown more up-take and greater success than individual efforts.
This is because participation in a workplace mental health programme:
A. Can be incentivised by employers to reinforce healthy behaviours
B. Can be driven by a central team, that can use data to track progress and measure the effects
C. Is de-stigmatised, and made easier since social support networks are available
Many organizations have implemented programs to support employee mental well-being. Adoption of mental health policies has been aided by the deployment of technologies and software platforms that ensure that the same benefits can be cost effectively provided across geographic locations, even by smaller companies. Technology has also been a boon in ensuring engagement, creating health targets driven challenges, tracking data, and providing a seamless solution for manager check-ins.
One proof of the positive impact of these programs can be seen in the changing causes of stress noted by respondents in surveys. In the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’s Labour Force Survey, the number one cause of stress in past years used to be ‘long working hours’, but corporate focus on work-life balance has changed that. The number one cause of work-related stress in 2020 has been noted as ‘office politics’, closely followed by ‘lack of communication’.
The pressing issues for HR strategists in the coming years will revolve around reducing toxic behaviours at the workplace and creating environments of proactive communication.
As organizations continue to work in this area, more focus is required around making workplace interventions multi-pronged and customizable, so as to have the desired positive impact in promoting mental health and well-being. This is critical given the following realities of mental disorders: Diagnosis of mental disorders can take years, and the prognosis is equally slow and still unsure - and - the manifestation of these disorders is distinctly individual – the stress triggers will vary from employee to employee as will the tools that are most effective in combating stress
In summary, our key recommendation is that it is better to be proactive and impact behaviours positively before a crisis point is reached. The discovery of the long-term linkages between chronic stressors and poor physical health, and in turn poor productivity, has put forward the need for proactive and preventive strategies.
ACTION 1: Addressing mental wellbeing holistically to prevent conditions from worsening or turning chronic.
This will empower employees to build resilience in their everyday lives. This shift from - a focus on treating ill health and providing health insurance to - preventing poor health and helping people thrive physically and mentally will define the way forward. Mental health encompasses various elements. 'Mental health is a dynamic state of internal equilibrium which enables individuals to use their abilities in harmony with universal values of society. Basic cognitive and social skills; ability to recognize, express and modulate one's own emotions, as well as empathize with others; flexibility and ability to cope with adverse life events and function in social roles; and harmonious relationship between body and mind represent important components of mental health which contribute, to varying degrees, to the state of internal equilibrium' (Silvana et al, 2015)
ACTION 2: Destressing the work environment and work requirements through active recognition and visible leadership.
The pandemic has impacted stress levels severely across the world. There is apprehension about health and the future, including the impact on the economy and resulting job-insecurity. While managers and leaders have a lot on their minds right now, ensuring employees feel seen and appreciated should be a top priority. Recognition can also quell the need some employees feel to push themselves too hard. Visible Leadership participation in wellness initiatives sets the standard for employees’ approach on self-care. By taking breaks to rest and rejuvenate and investing in their own mental health, Leaders encourage their staff to do the same.
The opposite of a stressed workforce is an engaged workforce. Building employee engagement will include addressing challenges that make it tougher for people to do their jobs, such as a lack of support from managers, a lack of confidence in teammates, and daily work that doesn’t line up with employees’ own values and goals.
ACTION 3: Fostering mental health outside of the workplace or working hours.
MonoSol, a manufacturer of water-soluble films, is thanking its 750 employees by allowing them to order their favourite takeout. Bonjoro, an Australian company that helps businesses create personal video messages for customers, recently took this approach a step further by giving employees a subscription to a streaming service. Casey Hill, Bonjoro’s head of growth, said, “We know these are stressful times, and we want to show our team that we value their mental health and relaxation time outside of work too.” Starbucks has begun offering 20 free sessions a year with a mental health therapist or coach to all of its U.S. front-line, hourly workers and eligible family members.
While these actions may have been initiated as a response to the extreme circumstances created by a world-wide pandemic, they will translate equally well to any stressful circumstance that is faced within a workplace. Access to therapy sessions and counselling of groups would be valued in case a team faces any unforeseen stressful trigger, for instance the death of a colleague. In the absence of such interventions, employees take measures in their own lives to alleviate this stress, which may not be most productive. Almost a third of stressed employees have been known to increase the use of stimulants and addictives, such as nicotine, alcohol and caffeine, to manage stress levels.
ACTION 4: Treating every employee uniquely according to his or her needs – hence the empathetic ability of managers is critical to the success of these programs.
Unilever has taken a holistic approach to its well-being program, and is also ensuring that line managers attend workshops to train them to recognize signs of mental health distress in their employees. RBS offers a targeted mental health awareness program to equip line managers with the tools to identify, manage and support mental health issues in the workplace.
Promoting mental well-being cannot have a cookie cutter approach.
As Kung Fu Panda taught us, everyone must find their own path to inner peace. Oogway spent years in isolated meditation, Po found peace in the midst of a desperate battle and Shifu would need the guidance of his juniors to finally find it. To create productive, engaged and inspired teams, Managers will need to tailor their support to match the needs of each team member. Some may need to be challenged to energize them psychologically and physically, motivating them to learn new skills and perform masterfully at their jobs. Others may seek appreciation and positive feedback, in an environment where they feel heard and valued. Building the capability of managers to take on empathetic leadership will be the determinant of future success.
The post-pandemic world offers employers an opportunity to win the hearts of their employees by deploying meaningful, complete and culturally contextual solutions for the overall wellbeing of their workforce. Whether all organizations will grab this opportunity with both hands and create lasting change in workplaces, and thereby the world, remains to be seen.
Galderisi, Silvana et al. “Toward a new definition of mental health.” World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) vol. 14,2 (2015): 231-3. doi:10.1002/wps.20231