You can’t go far on LinkedIn these days without coming across another company working hard on the mental wellbeing of employees and receiving awards for their efforts. Here in the UK, the Dukes and Duchesses of York and Sussex have made mental health one of their key priorities, and I admire them for it. If nothing else, it has made the UK sit up and start addressing the stigma of mental illness and its many misunderstandings.

It’s not surprising that companies are jumping on board the royal bandwagon. With such high-profile attention, failure to be seen to be doing something could be bad for business.

What do the statistics tell us?

Before getting to the workplace, it’s worth noting that it’s not just the workplace that’s creating stress in our lives. In the US, 71% told this year’s American Psychological Association’s annual stress survey that mass shootings are a significant source of stress in their lives. With politics as divisive as it has ever been, 56% identify the upcoming US presidential election as a significant source of stress, and 56% stress about climate change.

However, the workplace is a significant cause for concern.

  • Wrike’s 2019 survey suggested that 23% of American workers experience high stress in the workplace, and 6% regard stress levels as ‘unreasonably’ high
  • In 2019, the Health and Safety Executive in the UK reported that the top causes of workplace stress were workload, lack of support and violence, threats or bullying
  • In 2018, stress, anxiety, and depression made up 44% of all workplace illness in the UK, up considerably from 32% in 2001/2, and 54% of all working days lost due to ill health
  • 60% of 18-24-year-olds in the UK experience pressure to succeed and 41% of 25-34-year-olds also cited this.

Although the above research is all about perceived stress, the association between perceived stress and mental health conditions is well established. Our research indicates that around 35-40% of those that are stressed also experience anxiety, and 30-35% experience depression.

 “What should we do?”

Scampering around trying to decide what to do after the royals hit the front pages, companies keen to respond are faced with a plethora of potential options. Most will already have some form of Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), designed to support those facing mental health challenges with counselling and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This has quickly become a tick the box that nobody quite feels safe without, without perhaps ever really knowing how much good they do (if any).

Other options include mental health first aid, mental health awareness, stress management, other online courses, online assessments, onsite counselling, whilst of course making sure that the medical insurance plan has a strong mental health benefit for those that can afford the premiums. A few companies swim upstream and reach for mindfulness, engagement in programmes designed to help you thrive, and resilience-building programmes. Some might have registered the association between mental health and physical exercise and are consequently helping people become more active.

However, is this actually making a difference? Are they addressing the cause or the symptoms? Is the workplace a healthy place for us to be or are these same corporate entities culpable of creating the poor mental health they celebrate resolving?

Are employers making things worse?

We’d argue that the first thing any company should do, before spending a penny or cent, is to take a cold hard look at itself and ask

“Are we supporting mental wellbeing, or making matters worse?”

This is almost a trick question because you will not be able to get a true answer by asking your employees, particularly in a culture where you are, in fact, making matters worse. The truth is that almost all employers are creating a level of stress for their employees and consequently contributing to the current bleak picture of poor mental health.

Many current workplace cultures were developed in the post-war industrial era. They were built on command and control structures and designed to support the production of goods repetitively to a high quality. This worked fine in the industrial age, but the digital age has revolutionised the way we work. Instead of having a week to respond to a communication, workers now have minutes, 24 hours if they’re lucky. Consideration of the response can’t go up and down the chain of command in the timeframes expected by customers, so employees have to respond quickly, often on their own initiative.

To counter the perceived risks, companies have put in place rules, policies, procedures and control parameters for employees to follow. This also worked well for a while, but now the world is moving on. The speed with which products are coming to market and becoming obsolete is accelerating. The complexity of products and product design is increasing, facilitated by technology’s ability to handle so many more variants of design than was previously allowed by manual structures. Written rules and procedures cannot cover all the variations without becoming cumbersome and ineffective. Consequently, employees are overburdened by rules and compliance, and a more flexible way of engaging with the customer is required.

The changing workplace

Furthermore, a new breed of employees that has never known a world without computers or mobile phones is entering the workplace and taking control. Millennials are now in their 30s and taking up leadership and management positions. These employees are incompatible with command and control, and demand levels of autonomy and freedom to work as they see fit. They demand respect, psychological safety and to be valued as a human being rather than ‘a machine’.

So, as the world mechanises and digitizes, the people within it increasingly value their humanity and demand to be treated accordingly.

Changing culture

The world of work needs to evolve and we’re currently making a bit of a hash of it. To be effective in the digital age, the workplace needs to be change resilient. Culture needs to be on the move constantly to adapt to a changing world, adopting and incorporating the thinking of a new generation that knows how to respond to the digital challenge. The command and control structures are breaking down, but slowly and with not a little resistance.

It’s from here that most workplace stress derives, from the cognitive dissonance created by a world of work that demands that we take responsibility and ownership for our work and yet puts in place rules, cultures, controls, procedures, environment and influences all of which seem to indicate that “we don’t trust you”. To paraphrase Dan Pink, motivation of the modern workplace will require creating a space for purpose (“why am I working here?”), autonomy (“am I given the tools and freedom to do things as I think fit?”) and mastery (“how do I improve?”). Cultures in this era require much higher levels of trust and psychological safety than has historically been the case.

In summary

Simply put, workplaces need to evolve. Current cultures are the source of intolerable pressure on many employees, as post-war cultures clash with the speed demanded by the digital revolution. But what does the new culture look like? What are behaviours that are expected of individuals in a culture designed to thrive in the digital age?