The world continues to feel the impact of the pandemic, systemic inequality, and wars in Ukraine and beyond on mental and emotional health; we are in the midst of a global crisis. HR professionals know that supporting employees has never been more important. We also know that we are operating without a roadmap in these unprecedented times. So let’s make one of our own. We have a rare opportunity to recalibrate how we support mental health in the workplace.
The way we currently approach mental health at work is limited. We are only telling part of the story and therefore only providing partial solutions.
Mental Health or Mental Illness?
Do we need to recalibrate?
Organizations must effectively solve problems in order to succeed and most are very good at it. Unfortunately many have approached mental health the same way - as a problem to solve. Organizations tend to focus on reactive mental health needs, ramping up support during moments of crisis. For example, standard HR practice is to provide Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) to support employees and their families when they encounter challenges, create programs to support point-in-time humanitarian needs, and train managers to have conversations with employees who are struggling.
In other words, we center workplace support around mental illness rather than mental health. This trend predates the pandemic. We have fallen into the trap of deficit-thinking, investing in fixing things that aren't working through needs analyses, problem definition, and root cause analyses (Bushe, 2013).
But people are not problems to solve.
The problem solving approach is not working because it’s reactive and therefore incomplete. What’s missing is a vision for the future, one in which we ask more of ourselves and our organizations than simply a lack of mental illness. In the Future of Work successful organizations will build health and wellbeing for employees.
Health and Wellbeing
To build health and wellbeing, we need to create systems of practice that enable people to thrive rather than remediate challenges when they are not thriving. We should look for what is going well or what could work and build from there, in the tradition of Positive Psychology.
To that end, we can reframe the traditional definition of health from “a person’s mental and physical condition” to one in which positive outcomes are assumed and therefore pursued; health becomes “the mental and physical condition of strength, capability, and resilience”. Similarly, wellbeing can be summarized as “physical, mental, social, and emotional stability and balance”. Taken together, health and wellbeing create a holistic state in which we can thrive, navigating life successfully and enjoying the bumpy ride.
When we are healthy and experience wellbeing we have better outcomes in every aspect of our lives. Shawn Achor has identified a Happiness Advantage wherein our brain in a positive state performs 31% better. Happiness has been shown to impact intelligence, creativity, and energy levels.
And of course when we are not mentally and emotionally healthy it similarly impacts everything we do, as we all recall from 2020.
Why Should Organizations Care?
Employee health and wellbeing are intrinsically linked to organizational outcomes. When employees have access to effective support systems at work they perform better and so does the company.
Research has shown that organizations with strategic, systemic health practices for employees outperform their peers. They are 540% more effective at recruiting top talent, almost 11 times more likely to have low levels of absenteeism, and 220% more likely to meet financial targets. In other words, employee health and wellbeing drive business success.
Josh Bersin defines such companies as Healthy Organizations and they are characterized by a strategic, holistic view of wellbeing embedded in culture, a focus on work, workers, and the organization, and active leadership support. But not many companies are operating this way. Bersin’s research found that only 15% of companies could be classified as Healthy.
To create healthy organizations we must resist the temptation to limit our actions to problem solving through real-time mental health crises and reach for the harder, more rewarding task of building a system that enables employees to thrive. We need to build healthy systems of practice, proactively.
A System of Practices
An effective system of healthy practices needs to span the entire operating model of an organization, becoming a core part of culture (or how we do things here). We would expect to see these practices reflected in HR policies and programs. We also need to see them embedded into every day business operations such as how we treat each other, how we make decisions, how teams function, and how leaders communicate. To start setting up this system let’s clarify 3 different approaches, their corresponding level of investment, and how they work together.
- Build Health - Proactive, a business operating model that builds mental health and wellbeing across the employee lifecycle, long term policies and programs, participation from all stakeholders (individual, team, leadership, organization). The largest investment is here.
- Examples - Values, communication, technology, DEI, incentive structure
- Support Needs - Proactive and reactive, preparing policies and programs to respond when mental health needs arise, communication plans, response protocols, stakeholder outreach and support. Some investment is required.
- Examples: EAP, policies, manager enablement, communication protocols
- Crisis Intervention - Reactive, agile, responding to individual or environmental crises, cross functional response team identified. This should represent the smallest investment.
- Examples: Serious illness, humanitarian aid, domestic violence, natural disasters
When these 3 approaches work together it creates a strategic system of practices for employee health and wellbeing.
Typically organizations invest in Supporting Needs and Crisis Intervention but do not focus on the area that needs the largest investment - Building Health. This moment in history has provided a magnifying glass to see the impact of that mindset. At this scale, our reactive approaches to mental health are simply not enough. If organizations had not built for organizational health before 2020 it is showing up now.
Employees are not asking for a few extra days off; they are demanding a workplace that values their holistic health and wellbeing, and operates accordingly in everyday practices. We are forced to stop and listen to employees (hint: they have the answers), get creative,think bigger, and invest.
What would that look like? Let’s examine how this proactive system of healthy organizational practices could play out in a few use cases.
How can we create health and wellbeing for underrepresented groups?
Many companies set diversity hiring goals with the honorable intention to provide opportunity and level the playing field for underrepresented groups. While this is a good start, it is reactive problem solving (we need to have more diversity than we do today) rather than healthy organization building (we need to value and draw from diverse lived experiences, and create inclusive spaces where everyone belongs).
Building a healthy system of practice expands our approach. For example, we could address unconscious bias in our job descriptions and hiring practices, create platforms for underrepresented groups to be heard and act on their insights, remove barriers to entry within our industry, and take a stand against widespread global systemic injustice.
A Healthy Organization would create an environment in which prejudice and injustice can no longer flourish, thus contributing to the health and wellbeing of underrepresented groups at our organization and beyond.
How can we create health and wellbeing in a start up environment?
Start ups are fast paced and stressful environments. The stakes are high, with big risks and big rewards. This is highly motivating for people who join start ups, and stress can have a positive impact on performance, particularly if it’s in service of a shared mission. But stress has a point of diminishing returns. The key in start ups is to prevent employees from burning out, which not only impacts the employee but business results and long term employer brand as well.
To create a healthy start up culture, we focus on maintaining positive employee stress levels and build a system of practices around that. For example, to create positive stress we could offer a stretch opportunity program, have pitch competitions, create individual development plans (IDPs) to understand career goals and work toward achieving or even exceeding them, or incentivize achievement with a meaningful bonus structure.
To mitigate negative stress, we could analyze workload data for imbalances and distribute evenly, senior leaders could model taking time off, we could offer Communities of Practice (POC) where peers can connect and vent, or build a protocol to proactively identify when an employee is about to reach the tipping point of stress (by self report, managers, peers, and HR) and implement programs to de escalate.
We create health and wellbeing for start up employees when we proactively create an environment where stress is managed intentionally in their service.
Prioritizing employee mental health and wellbeing used to be “nice to haves” for companies; they are now table stakes.
We have an opportunity to shift how we address mental health within organizations. To date, the story has been centered around reactive problem solving and risk mitigation. The larger, more complete story is about building positive health and wellbeing for employees. If we create systems of practice that appropriately balance 1) building health, 2) supporting needs, and 3) providing crisis intervention, we will succeed.
As HR leaders, we are our employees’ advocates in this shift. Let's stand with and for employees by asking the hard questions.
- Are we focused on reactive or proactive strategies?
- What are employees and candidates asking for?
- How are we building health and wellbeing in our organizations?
- Are we innovating enough?
- What would a Healthy Organization look like?
- What needs to be true to reach that vision?
In the Future of Work organizations that prioritize employee wellbeing will win. I look forward to seeing you on the other side.