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  • Andrew Stephenson

Mental Health Month: Improving Workplace Wellbeing

In a previous post, we talked about some of the opportunities and business advantages of being more proactive in supporting mental wellbeing. Specifically, shifting from mental health or mental illness awareness and support to more actively building resilience and a thriving work environment.

Happy employees collaborating well

While that all sounded great in theory, the challenge for most is figuring out how to do it! As we continue through Mental Health month, this follow up focuses more on the strategy and tactics to help enable that shift.

Effective wellness programs can help (key emphasis on the word "effective"... and you can review prior posts to see some of the reasons many common wellness models under-perform). Helping individuals live healthier and more resilient lives is a foundation, but it can't pick up the slack for then placing them in a mentally unhealthy work environment.

A recent report from McKinsey Health Institute showed that even when workplaces provided employees with good health enablers, when the workplace factors were incongruent, then stress and burnout were still high. What this suggests is that if you truly want to shift upstream, while workforce education and health promotion is important and beneficial, you also need to look at organizational factors like culture, environment, leadership, job demands and communication practices. If these are poor, they will undermine and strip away the benefits of the other health improvement initiatives.

The first step is therefore to look at your health promotion initiatives against your day-to-day work expectations. Are they complimentary or contradictory? Consulting for a group many years ago we uncovered this type of contradiction that was contributing significantly to worker stress, risky work behavior, and cutting corners on product quality. The organization was in the midst of a rather ambitious safety initiative. They were really pushing employees to slow down and be more deliberate and cognizant of assessing risk prior to tasks and then performing risky tasks slower and in the safest manner possible. Sounds logical. However, at the same time, worker performance and efficiency was constantly being assessed. That is, their work performance expectations were literally measuring how quickly they got stuff done. The result? Workers were constantly anxious, not sure whether they should hurry up or slow down, and constantly worried they'd either be written up for slow productivity or for skipping safety protocols. They couldn't do things fast and safely; they had to compromise one for the other. This might sound obvious, but you'd be surprised how common this type of incongruency appears within organizations due to competing priorities between business units.

To truly optimize wellbeing in the workplace, all levels of leadership need to be aligned on the priorities and there needs to be clarity of expectations and consistency in communication or enforcement. Inconsistency and uncertainty breeds stress and anxiety.

That needs to be the foundation. Regardless of the specific interventions or changes you ultimately decide to implement in your organization, there has to be a base-level understanding and commitment at the organizational level to ensure that the initiatives, expectations, measurement or performance parameters are aligned. When any changes are being planned or implemented, all senior leaders or key stakeholders have to be educated on WHY. For example, the potential benefits of a flexible work schedule can be eroded if it ends up meaning employees feel they need to be always reachable. This can happen if they "can choose when they work", but also are expected to be responsive when a manager of another employee contacts them even if they're working at a different time. In this type of culture, "flexible" actually becomes "always working", which can make work-life balance challenging, despite that being the goal of most flexible work arrangements.

There are many tactics you an consider for fostering a positive work environment to support optimal health and mental wellbeing. But before implementing any of them, you must ensure they are compatible with your organizational culture, leadership practices, and performance expectations, otherwise the perceived contradictions they can create may actually be more detrimental to your goal of enhancing health, wellbeing, and employee engagement.

Practices that, when implemented and integrated well can contribute to enhancing employee wellbeing and performance:

  1. Promote Work-Life Balance: This shouldn't only be centered on the number of hours worked, but also include consideration for allowing people to set boundaries or appropriate expectations about responsiveness.

  2. Provide Mental Health and Holistic Wellbeing Education and Resources

  3. Create a Supportive Environment: Make sure there are realistic opportunities for people to use, access, or implement positive health and wellbeing resources or activities.

  4. Lead by Example: Ensure senior leaders are educated about the human stress response and the benefits (business advantages) of supporting a mentally healthy workplace. Encourage them to prioritize their own mental health as well as to implement standards within their operating teams to avoid practices that are incongruent with supporting workplace mental wellbeing.

  5. Monitor Workloads and Expectations: Extending from the engagement of leadership, and looking back at the consulting example above; ensure work expectations and performance incentives are realistic, achievable, and regularly monitored.

  6. Recognition and Connection to Purpose: It can be easy to feel like a small and insignificant cog in a much bigger machine, especially in large organizations or as you move lower down the employee chain. Regularly acknowledge and appreciate employee contribution and routinely make sure employees at every level know how their work contributes to the organization's mission and purpose.

  7. Seek Feedback and Adapt: People and organizations are constantly evolving. Make check-ins with various levels of employees part of your ongoing strategy. When feedback is received, when practical, try to follow through, or, when not, at least provide feedback or reasons why so employees still feel heard.

There's no silver bullet or perfect strategy that's applicable to all organizations. Your industry, the unique make up of your workforce, it's personality, your purpose and values will mean the combination of organizational factors, how they're implemented and communicated, the supportive health initiatives you use to compliment them will all be different. But the outcomes will always be undermined if the strategy you adopt is not consistent across your business or is merely presented and not supported.


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