To be honest, I held back from weighing in during mental health month. But I’m drawing on both my memories of being a recruiter — for starving tech firms that seemed to literally gobble up great talent — and my decades of experience in HR, being a part of the most profound changes this field has gone through. So let me ask you: What lessons have you learned as we close mental health month?
Here’s what I’ve learned: every month should be mental health month, and every day should be mental health day. When it comes to taking care of ourselves and our employees, we need to do better. And as we focus on 2019’s hot issues — candidate and employee experience, improving engagement, reducing turnover — we are still driving ourselves and our employees nuts. Yes, I use the term loosely, but there are clinical implications to how we run our workplaces now, and perhaps it’s time to check our momentum and regroup.
Wellness is a now multibillion-dollar industry: 82 percent of companies with more than 200 workers offer some sort of wellness program, like smoking cessation or weight management, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. A 2019 survey by Wellable reports that the most popular wellness program is actually financial wellness (68 percent). But, employers expect to invest in mental health (58 percent) and stress management (55 percent) more than any other aspect of wellness after that. Yet the Kaiser study found that for all that spend there are very few tangible results — and meanwhile, mental health issues at work and workplace stress rates are still rising.
What we’re up against is the danger that mental health in the workplace is just a contradiction, and we’re all just trying to live with it, and in spite of it. But knowledge is power, my friends. While we make huge investments in mental health in our workplaces, here are some tips for getting better results:
Admit That Business Will Always Come First
We can’t look at wellness programs with the same interest as we used to look at office perks. They’re not just shiny tools to attract new hires and keep employees engaged — “engaged” as in — let’s be honest — not wanting to leave and fomenting dissent all over the office. But we’re business driven. The employer comes first. The objectives by necessity come down to what’s going to support the business — and the irony here is that employee benefits are all for the benefit of the employer.
The contract we make with the employee may promise it will be to their benefit, but is it? We need to find better ways of aligning a focus on their needs with a focus on the needs of the workplace. No matter how many of us say “people come first,” they really have to. Or else the whole concept of mental health in the workplace is just a poster campaign by the water cooler.
Face And Tackle Workplace Stress — It’s Our Biggest Problem
Workplace stress, a byproduct of the cutthroat, high pressure, always-on environment we labor in, is the killer we’re not fixing. Workplace stress is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. — higher than Alzheimer’s or Kidney Disease. A Stanford professor found that there are some 120,000 excess deaths per year attributable to ten specific workplace conditions — such as not having health insurance, lacking control over our own jobs, or having to work long hours.
Again, people come first: and their stress costs your business billions: some $190 billion in incremental health care costs. Yet late last year, when the prof’s study dropped, the tides in HR were rolling towards employee happiness. My team was focusing on looking at how great organizations get employees to love their company, and many of my clients were sparking off the concept of employee happiness. In hindsight, since the report came out, we’ve lost some 60,000 more people to workplace stress-related deaths. Is that the best way to tend to our greatest asset?
Address That Workplace Culture — Always And Forever
Now that we know workplace culture is a major factor in employee productivity and performance, and now that we’re taking the time to define it, we need to take our workplace culture awareness to the next level. Workplace cultures remain intensely stressful, vulnerable to the whims and mood swings of the C-Suite, and fraught with bias and other fairness glitches that try our souls. The aspiration here, of course, is that working for a great company will dial back the stress, but we know that’s not the case.
Highly competitive markets drive highly competitive cultures, so check on yours: are you pushing your employees too hard? Do your core values include relentlessly driving for excellence? Are you overchallenging, reaching for overambitious goals to match the models of a Google or Amazon? Does your hyperproductive workplace culture trigger burnout — now declared an official mental health concern? The World Health Organzation calls burnout an “occupational phenomenon . . . resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” I don’t know any field where workers don’t suffer from this, and I’m interested to find out how the rising gig economy plays a role in the years to come.
Stop Blaming Leaders And Lean On Managers
What about leaders? A study out of UC San Francisco found that a whopping 30 percent of entrepreneurs admit to struggling with depression, and it’s estimated that the rate of depression for business leaders is twice the rate of everyone else. Given the pressure on leading a business I doubt anyone is surprised by this. But we need to move past blaming leaders. Yes, their mental state can indeed shape organizational atmospheres, but really, that’s up to the managers.
If your top layers of management are vulnerable to the moods of your leader, they can perpetuate that trickle-down effect. But if your managers are doing their jobs and have the autonomy to act sanely even when smoke’s coming through the doors of the C-Suite, this should not happen. It’s up to management to create a buffer zone between what’s happening in the boss’s office and what’s happening in the rest of the organization in terms of mood swings: executives often have to embrace their mercurial roles, but that doesn’t mean managers have to. As far as transparency, mental health struggles abound among the brilliant. But the company itself is its own organism, and there’s a difference between transparency and anxiety. Sometimes leaders really do have to have some privacy, for the good of everyone.
Not all companies have the resources to embark on expensive mental health initiatives. But any company, no matter its size, can resolve to take better care of its people. So let your folks go home early on a Wednesday, give them a day off to walk in the woods every once in a while. Allow them to make some decisions and create some initiatives they can be proud of on their own. Let people bring their dogs to work: having Fido around has a proven, positive impact on people’s mental states at the office. I know a firm that saw so much stress around the conference table (no one would let anyone finish a sentence) that they went on a “decaffeinate” binge — a voluntary campaign to help employees slow down and breathe. Everyone took part, everyone relaxed, everyone got more done, and everyone felt better about their own roles in the company. In other words, yes, do sweat the small stuff, and wake up and smell the decaf.