Wellbeing and Mental Health

Improving workplace productivity requires a holistic approach to employee health and well-being

Managers need the skills to effectively deal with employee mental health and well-being.

Managers need the skills to effectively deal with employee mental health and well-being. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Susan Garfield
Chief Public Health Officer, Americas, EY
Ruma Bhargava
Lead, Mental Health, World Economic Forum
Eric Kostegan
Chief Development Officer, WHO Foundation
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Mental Health

This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare
  • The work environment, stress and interpersonal dynamics significantly influence employee mental health and well-being, impacting performance and productivity, with a substantial economic cost globally.
  • Workplace mental health and well-being require a holistic approach that goes beyond individual stress management resources and focuses on creating a supportive culture.
  • Leadership is crucial to fostering a mental health-friendly workplace; training programmes, such as WHO’s ASCEND can equip managers with the skills to support their employees’ mental health and well-being.

We’ve all experienced stressful situations in the workplace. From unrealistic performance expectations to demanding bosses or strong personalities, few are free of the work-related pressures that can impact mental health.

The average person spends 90,000 hours or roughly one-third of their life at work. As a result, the environment, stress levels and interpersonal dynamics can majorly impact workers’ mental health and well-being.

At any given time, more than one in 10 workers are absent due to anxiety, depression or burnout. Beyond the interpersonal, balancing the demands of work and life, managing health issues and the ever-rising cost of living can all be amplifying stressors.

Previously, large organizations could afford to regard mental health as a private matter. In 2001, the seminal World Mental Health Report by the World Health Organization (WHO) called for a transformation in the environments that impact mental health – the workplace, a key arena. More than 20 years later, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, increasingly employers are starting to understand their role and responsibilities for tackling mental health in the workplace.

The aftermath of people returning to work after such a collective trauma highlighted the cost of inaction and the opportunity to drive impact. Absenteeism and quiet quitting are all potential mental health side effects with operational and financial implications for employers. Mitigating these and improving employee well-being are motivations for many.

Additionally, there’s a demographic factor: Generation Z is far more likely to quit, citing mental health concerns. They are also more willing to discuss mental health, accept support and services and expect employers to treat them as “whole people,” not just employees. Their views matter and employers are listening.

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Taking a holistic approach

The economic argument for addressing mental health in the workplace is clear. Globally, an estimated 12 billion working days are lost annually to depression and anxiety, costing $1 trillion in lost productivity. An estimated 20 million days and billions of dollars of productivity are lost in the United States.

Researchers estimate that in private-sector organizations where employees perceive good health and well-being management, organizational performance is more than 2.5 times greater than in organizations with poor health and well-being management. Yet, mental health challenges cost more than money, impacting morale, relationships and, ultimately, the well-being of families and communities.

The first step in addressing health and well-being at work is recognizing that employers can be part of the solution. Then, steps to address it and measuring success follow. Research published this year by the World Economic Forum shows there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are some guiding principles.

Perhaps primarily, employers have a direct influence over the work and culture. Culture comes from the top, which is why including leadership in initiatives is essential; there is also likely more buy-in at all levels when leaders are engaged in the process. We must empower managers to protect their staff’s mental health through training and reward them professionally for doing so.

An enabling environment can only be created consciously by managers with mental health awareness training and smart resources centred within the culture. How do we do that?

Workforce mental health initiatives should go beyond providing individual stress management resources, such as access to on-demand digital therapy platforms. Workplace massages are great, but even better is a workplace culture that encourages people to take a proper lunch break and walk. Resources have value but are no substitute for an environment where people feel safe sharing concerns and showing their fallibility.

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Bringing the whole self to work

Taking your whole self to work is often parodied as an excuse for millennials to avoid the slog that a fabled older generation persevered through. In reality, it means employees can have tough conversations about the substance of work, collegial relationships and personal experiences without being judged or dismissed. Policies that encourage respectful working environments and interactions can be repeated and embodied in the messages and actions of managers and coworkers.

Employees need informal and formal support and social connections can be healing. For example, work “buddies” are uniquely positioned as they offer a way to share experiences outside the hierarchy.

Employees want to see themselves aligned with an organization’s mission and vision and want their efforts to impact overall work. Research repeatedly shows that the difference between disabling and enabling stress is how much control employees feel over their work.

We need to see professional growth as an integral part of promoting wellness; without a path for upward mobility, employees may struggle with their overall purpose and mental health. It can be as simple as a fireside chat by an executive who offers employees a chance to see the person behind the role or peer-to-peer groups that give people the time to connect with colleagues across teams.

If done with the intention of improving relationships and aiding professional development, they help rebalance the power dynamics and dissipate the fear in many workplace hierarchies. Call it good people management or the human touch. We know that fostering a workplace culture that contributes to good mental health does not happen automatically; it takes tools, commitment, intentionality and investment.

The workplace can transform mental health

The workplace can be a fertile environment for recognizing and supporting better mental health. Much work-related stress is preventable and should form part of an over-arching mental health and well-being focus; this alone is cause for optimism but we can do better.

“Decent work supports good mental health by providing a livelihood, a sense of confidence, purpose and achievement, an opportunity for positive relationships and inclusion in a community and a platform for structured routines, among many other benefits. For people with mental health conditions, decent work can contribute to recovery and inclusion, improve confidence and social functioning,” according to Dr Aiysha Malik, a mental health specialist at the WHO.

She adds: “With around 60% of the global population being in work, we have a tremendous opportunity to tackle mental health at scale.” One very specific initiative Malik and her team are developing, for instance, is specific training for managers called WHO ASCEND (Advancing Supervisor Capabilities for Mental Health at Work).

ASCEND aims for managers to build knowledge and skills in protecting their employees’ mental health and supporting workers experiencing emotional distress or other conditions. The training also seeks to shift stigmatizing attitudes against mental health conditions.

Work can transform or blight our lives but as employers, economists and health advocates, we can help influence that direction.

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Wellbeing and Mental HealthHealth and Healthcare SystemsJobs and the Future of Work
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