Today, business leaders are facing a new set of circumstances and pressures, and a new collective cadre of workforce players. Amid the Great Resignation and the economy recovering from the two-year pandemic, employees are wanting business leaders to prioritize their well-being and mental health. According to recent research conducted by global education tech firm Cengage Group, 89 percent of 1,200 U.S. workers included in the study reported burn out and feeling unsupported as one of the top reasons they are leaving their jobs. Employee burnout can lead to a range of physical and mental health problems, as well as reduce employee productivity and cost the organization, and even society, in the long run.
The two-year pandemic has shown how imperative it is for business leaders to prioritize employee well-being and mental health. In the new digitally transformed, Covid-impacted, and VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) world, employees’ health is ever more important. Leaders can create a workplace that values employee well-being and reduce burnout by implement four substantial changes in their organizations:
Destigmatize mental and behavioral health
A recent McKinsey report shows that workplace burnout and mental health problems are as harmful to health as secondhand smoke. Together, they cost the United States approximately $180 billion and 120,000 unnecessary deaths annually. Leaders can destigmatize mental illness by talking about mental health openly and taking significant actions. This may sometimes require leaders to first turn inward to reflect and understand their own emotions, fears, stress and anxieties, and then turn outward to help employees and colleagues grapple with their own reactions.
This introspection and projection of vulnerability and openness is critical for connecting and dealing with people’s needs Digital technologies are a great resource for increasing awareness and helping individuals manage stress and monitor their mental health. Several apps on the market provide on-demand coaching, self-care tool, and offer personalized services to help with work related stress and anxiety. Companies such as Adobe, WW, Unilever, and Starbucks now offer Headspace, an app focused on mindfulness, to employees as a part of their effort to offer a more holistic approach to health, including mental health solutions. Other companies are providing onsite medical care for mental health.
Reset health policies and practices
Increasing awareness and destigmatizing mental health through behavioral modeling and technologies is only one part of the equation. Mental health policies play an important role in prioritizing mental health at the workplace. The Covid-19 crisis prompted many organizations to experiment in aligning their practice with policies.
For example, the company Headspace launched “MINDays,” where every other Friday is a company-wide day off, and on alternate Fridays meetings are discouraged. Other companies that adopted remote working have asked employees to commit saved commuting time to activities that boost their physical and emotional energy (e.g., time exercising or with family and friends) and observe “rituals” that help define work-life boundaries. These simple, fast, and intentional steps can quickly boost energy and improve employee well-being by reducing fatigue and frustration.
Build a culture of care and psychological safety
Dr. Amy Edmondson at Harvard Business School defines psychological safety as a work climate where employees can speak up about ideas and concerns, free from interpersonal fears, risk, or consequences, a crucial attribute of resilient teams. Executives and managers at all levels need to create the right conditions for a culture of psychological safety. This includes fostering a culture of communication and connection, being open to different opinions and viewpoints, and encouraging learning and even failing. Leaders must pay close attention to how their leadership is experienced, and consider whether their practices, policies, techniques, and technologies are making their employees feel safer.
Explore and invest in a broad range of training
Pre-pandemic research found only one in four U.S. managers were trained on how to refer employees to mental health resources. Leadership training can help executives and managers overcome outdated attitudes, cultivate open and safe cultures that can take the stigma out of talking about mental health at work, and design work practices and initiatives that strengthen employee wellbeing. EY (formerly Ernst and Young) did just this when they launched their WeCare program. The program was designed to educate their employees about mental health, urge them to seek any necessary assistance, and support others who might struggle with mental illness.
The pandemic has made painfully clear that our collective emotional health is in jeopardy and many employers are scrambling to meet burgeoning demands. Business leaders can pave the way to creating workplaces that prioritize employees and their wellbeing by having mental health discussions, leveraging digital technologies, creating a company culture around employee well-being, and investing in the proper structure.