Thanks in part to the pandemic, employers have sufficient awareness of mental health problems in the workforce, their human and economic costs. Now is the time for programs to solve them.
A multi-country multi-industry webinar last week (December 9) looked at how employers should learn from the impact of covid-19 and put in place processes to adapt to a better work experience for all stakeholders in recovery.
The webinar, ‘The Great Rebalance’, was narrowcast from Melbourne by organiser The Inside Network, publisher of this masthead. It was initiated by Rob Prugue (photo at top), former fund manager and founder of People Reaching Out to People (PROP) and featured Margo Lydon, the chief executive of SuperFriend, and Vanessa Bennett, chief executive of consultancy Next Evolution Performance and a former funds management marketer.
Lydon and Bennett agreed that the focus, following the spike in reported mental health problems in the broad community, including suicides and attempted suicides, needed to be on taking action.
Bennett said that the pandemic provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for organisations to rethink how employees worked, having shone a spotlight on remote work behaviours.
“Let’s not lose this opportunity,” she said. “We need to look at how we have a hybrid model (both remote or at-home and on-site workplaces). Employers will need some sort of hybrid policy.”
The focus for employers was now back on productivity. “We are really starting to think about it. We should go back to basics. I think of productivity as the ability to get through the things that matter with no undue effort or undue stress,” Bennett said.
But the biggest issue for employers, post pandemic, was “cognitive energy depletion”. Bennett said that humans were capable of only four hours a day of heavy cognitive use and we needed to work out how to not spend it unnecessarily. There were numerous reports of people going back to work and experiencing burnout within a few weeks.
An element of this involved lack of focus, leading to “continuous partial attention” which drained energy. “We need to help people to understand how to focus better,” Bennett said.
This year she completed, remotely, a master’s degree from King’s College London in science, psychology and the neuroscience of mental health.
Lydon, who has been chief executive of industry fund-owned and insurance company-backed SuperFriend since 2010, has a more varied background, including nine years as business manager of an eating disorder outpatient facility.
She said that every business had an obligation to employees under the work, health and safety laws to provide for both physical and psychological protection. The Federal Government’s $11 million National Workplace Mental Health Initiative (NWMHI) aimed to assist each workplace, not matter what size, to fulfil those obligations.
The NWMHI had created a blueprint for employers including the three pillars of “protect, respond and promote”. The initiative is led by 13 not-for-profit organisations, including SuperFriend.
SuperFriend conducts a major annual survey of employee levels of mental wellbeing which has resulted in the creation of an index, ‘Indicators of a Thriving Workplace’, and report card for every industry in Australia.
Lydon said that Australia was one of the best countries in the world for workplace mental wellbeing, alongside Canada, New Zealand and parts of the US. The index had shown continued gradual improvement each year but there was still a long way to go. For 2021, the index total score was 65.6 compared with 65.1 last year. But a score of 80 or above was necessary for an industry to be considered “thriving”.
Lydon’s definition of a thriving workplace was one where employees brought their best selves to work, contributed and enjoyed themselves, going home with energy to spare.
She said the latest survey results, for more than 10,000 workers, showed that 53.5 per cent experienced some mental health condition last year and 22.3 per cent said that the workplace had caused it or made it worse.
“In all employee categories (from management through to less senior positions) remote work contributes to better workplace health. It’s time to treat workers as individuals with the return-to-office programs,” Lydon said.
“People are most productive when they are working in their preferred environment… They are also more likely to stay at the company for the next 12 months.”
Prugue pointed to problems to do with managing an organisation’s culture when many employees were working from home and with helping new employees into their roles. Lydon said the evidence was that people who were working in the ‘gig economy’ and newer young workers were the furthest from thriving, according to the survey.
“These are the leaders of tomorrow, and we are not investing in them,” she said. “There are a lot of people who want to go back to the office. What are their motivations? We should get it right by asking the right questions.”
Both Lydon and Bennett emphasised the importance of continuous conversations; checking how people were feeling. Bennett said she liked employers to have a questionnaire on psychological safety, for instance, checking how comfortable employees were about “speaking up”.
Lydon said that a good way to approach the issue was to set the foundations from the first day of employment. Employees could be asked what they needed from their manager(s), what they would do for themselves and how they wanted the manager to address an issue if it arose. Bennett agreed that employees had to “do the work too”. They had to accept responsibility for their own mental health. “You can’t hire a personal trainer and just watch them. You have to do the work yourself.”