“I’ve grown tired of attending Mentally Healthy Workplace conferences where there’s endless talk about the issue but no real solutions offered except for buying new online applications and additional employee benefits,” said my colleague, the CEO of a prominent employer coalition. This launched a conversation like many others I’ve had during recent years.
“I couldn’t agree more,” I said. “Wearables, online stress management tools, mindfulness programs, onsite gyms, and expanded employee assistance program services are great, but they don’t matter at all without one essential ingredient and that’s a healthy workplace culture.”
I went on to mention the time a friend described for me the new onsite gym at the top tier financial services firm where he works. “This place has every piece of equipment you’d ever want and the décor is crazy: marble walls and there’s even a waterfall!” I asked how many times he’s used the gym. His response: “I haven’t had the time.” Unfortunately, this was exactly the answer I expected.
As we seek to create mentally healthy workplaces let’s first ask how we got to the place where so many workplaces undermine our mental health. A Gallup study published in the August, 2014, edition of Success Magazine found that only 30% of the general workforce feels “engaged and inspired” while the remaining 70% feels either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged.” Translation: most people hate their jobs. The World Health Organization published a report in 2015 that flagged depression as the number one cause of disability worldwide. Our workplaces, the environments where we spend most of our waking hours, either support our health or challenge it, and we’ve been heading in the wrong direction.
Conversations with employees and workplace leaders bring the story to life in human terms. An HR leader asked for help after reviewing a number of disturbing employee engagement survey responses, one including this comment, “I shouldn’t have had children because I don’t have any time for them.”
At wits end, An IT director contacted me after his team had been downsized from ten employees to five. “We used to be on call every few days but now it’s 24 hours, every day of the week,” he said. “I get called away from my kid’s soccer games on Sundays and have to spend the rest of the day on the phone and computer fixing something that’s gone wrong in Asia. I have to get out of there.”
In addition to work overload and all the other stresses brought on by downsizing, too many employees report to leaders who treat them like “human resources” instead of human beings. A client of mine has a six-year-old son who was diagnosed with a rare and very serious medical condition. After receiving a telephone call alerting him to an appointment that had opened the following week with a pediatric specialist, my client asked his boss for time off. Her response was, “We’ve had an important meeting scheduled on that day for weeks!”
The solution to our mentally unhealthy workplaces is right before our eyes, simple in concept but perhaps not easy to do given current norms. We need workplaces that offer job security, reasonable workloads, and humane leadership.