The question we should be asking as we return to the office

  • Author Helen Attia, VP Sales & Relationships

So… what’s the question, what’s the question? I can’t claim it as my own, but I do like a good question. Tasha Eurich poses this one:

As companies begin to reimagine the future of work, our conversations must be broader than the mechanics of returning to the office. Leaders need to ask: how can we redesign our workplaces as a more positive force for growth, agency, and physical and mental health?” – Tasha Eurich.

I’m a Tasha fan. Her latest book, Insight, is well worth a read for anyone interested in self-growth. We plan to spend more time on this blog covering topics like employee growth, agency and employee wellbeing in the workplace. In this post, I wanted to pick up on her mention of mental wellbeing at work, whether your employees are returning to the office, continuing to work from home (WFH) or a blend of both with hybrid working.

Mental wellbeing and work

Mental wellbeing is a heavy topic, but an important one for us not to shy away from at work. If we are to take the opportunity to re-imagine our post-Covid worlds of work, an open, healthy dialogue about mental wellbeing should be at their core.

Here are three mental health truths to get us started:

The World Health Organisation defines mental health as: “Not mere absence of mental illness, but a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”.

  1. Mental health, like physical health, is on a spectrum. We’re all on that spectrum somewhere and we move along it in both directions during our lives.
  2. It is estimated that one in four people experience a mental health issue in any given year
  3. And that at least one in six employees is depressed, anxious, or suffering from stress-related issues at any one time.

The last point really got us thinking about the size of our growing team, and how many of us are likely to be experiencing some less than optimal mental health right now.

Psychology safety in the workplace

There is still much stigma and mis-understanding around mental health. When people hold back from speaking out, suffering is prolonged and like with so many illnesses, an early response has a huge impact on recovery.

An example of this stigma is that mental ill-health is a sign of weakness:

It can be just the opposite. Determined, energetic, purposeful high achievers can be the most vulnerable, because they push themselves so hard. Winston Churchill, Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens and Ludwig van Beethoven all experienced mental health issues.

High-achievers are some of the most likely among us to beat themselves up, and equally likely not to want to share what they’re going through with others. This is a dangerous combination and certainly something we as business leaders should be paying more attention to when thinking about colleagues and employees.

If people who are experiencing the early symptoms of mental ill health feel able to talk about them – particularly in the workplace – it can prevent these symptoms from developing into illness. One in five people take a day off due to stress, yet up to 90% feel unable to be honest about this being the reason for their absence.

This made me think of ‘psychological safety’, a phrase coined by Google, and something many leaders are trying to emulate in their workplaces. Google defines psychological safety as “team members feeling safe and able to be vulnerable in front of each other”.

It strikes me that being able to have a conversation about our mental health might be the very foundation of psychological safety at work.

How to talk about mental wellbeing at work

The reality, whether we like to hear it or not, is that we’re all at risk of some mental ill-health at some point in our lives and careers and therefore whilst at work. It appears to me we’d all be better served if we embraced this fact and put steps in place to keep the conversation about mental wellbeing at work. After all, taking care of the wellbeing of our people is also good for the workplace.

Mental health issues are responsible for 91 million working days lost in the UK. These issues in the workplace cost about £30 billion a year, while the cost of presenteeism – which means turning up for work when unwell – is around £15.1 billion a year to the economy.

Stress ranks in fourth and mental ill health in sixth place in the main causes for short-term absence. When it comes to long-term absence, stress is ranked in second and mental ill health in third. Increasingly, workplaces that are supportive of employee wellbeing programs are seen as desirable places to work, contributing to improved engagement and employee retention.

Employers are constantly seeking ways to maximise the productivity of their employees, and the enlightened ones understand that the way to do this is not to pile on the pressure, but to engage them and support them to work more effectively. Striking the balance between higher productivity and robust mental health is tricky, and it relies on strong understanding by organisations, and by well-trained line managers in particular, about how to create and maintain the conditions that support good mental health, and to recognise signs of ill health and provide appropriate support.

‘Mental Wellbeing Champions’ at Kadence

I recently completed the MHFA England, Mental Health First Aid course. It also happened to be Men’s Health Week last month, which had a particular focus on Men’s Mental Health – unsurprising, given the impact Covid-19 continues to have on the mental wellbeing of so many of us.

At Kadence, we plan to have mental health and employee wellbeing be a more common part of our team language, something pro-actively discussed by line managers with their teams regularly, not only during appraisal time.

We’re going to adopt the concept of ‘Mental Wellbeing Champions’ in each team too, so there’s someone on every team on the lookout for those having a tougher time than normal or needing additional support. Someone a team member could come to and flag something that is impacting where they find themselves on that spectrum I mentioned above. We also plan to have more team members take the MHFA course.

As we return to seeing colleagues on a more regular basis, the MHFA course reminded me of the importance of simply looking out for each other, taking the time to connect, whether we’re returning to a workplace, or will continue to spend most of our working hours at home. This is absolutely the time to open up the conversation about mental health at work and understand what each of us needs to be able to do our best work, wherever we do it.

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