Yoga, therapy, meditation. Wellness perks are helpful, but they’re not a cure-all for workplace stress – says Erica Coe on the McKinsey Podcast, part of the McKinsey Health Institute (MHI).

There is an ongoing desire for corporate firms to firstly acknowledge the fact that stress, anxiety or ‘burn-out’ is a real tangible problem in today’s working world. Speaking from personal experience, mental health is life threatening and a killer – make no mistake about it. It is powerful, all consuming and deeply burdensome. So it is right that in the last 10 years there has been a shift in attitude towards these subjects. Like most things in life balance is needed in looking at ways to navigate the issue and assessing the problem.

What is the current problem?

According to MHI – ‘burn out’ has hit record highs over the last two years. They opened up the subject of what leaders can do to help bring about meaningful and lasting change, whilst looking at the challenges associated with it. MHI conducted a survey of 15,000 employees across 15 countries, on every continent around the world, and found consistently high burn-out rates.

One difference the MHI found across countries surveyed was the cultural context: how much stigma or discrimination exists in a workplace, how comfortable employees are sharing certain things, and the level of support they might feel from their employer. This is where the start of the balancing act arises - members of organisations shouldn’t use phrases like burn-out as an excuse for indifference or laziness. Ultimately, all leaders will want an efficient, industrious workforce, and all employees will want to feel valued and cared for in return for their hard work. This includes care towards real mental health problems.

According to the World Health Organization, burnout is an occupational workplace phenomenon. It’s driven by a chronic imbalance between your job demands—for example, how heavy your workload pressure is—and your job resources. It might be how autonomous or supported you feel at work. It’s that disconnect and imbalance between demands and resources. It’s often correlated with anxiety and depression, and a potential predictor of broader mental-health challenges.

So the problem is a difficult one. But that isn’t a good enough reason to overlook trying to find a solution.

What are the symptoms of burn out or poor mental health?

MHI state it is often marked by extreme tiredness, difficulty concentrating, and difficulty with cognitive and emotional processes. Emotional processes are a big one – if this compounds with ongoing general mental health issues then the results can be devastating from my experience. An employer is looking at being without that resource for significant periods of time, that is on the assumption the employee is fortunate enough to have an opportunity to recover.

The Statistics 

According to the Mental Health Foundation, 1 in 6.8 people experience mental health problems in the workplace (14.7%). Evidence suggests that 12.7% of all sickness absence days in the UK can be attributed to mental health conditions. The statistics are eye watering, according to Mental Health First Aid England (“MHFA England”) the following is true:

  • 50% of employees have experienced at least one characteristic of burn out due to greater job demands and expectations, lack of social interaction and lack of boundaries between work and home life
  • Mental health costs UK employers approximately £56 billion each year
    • Annual cost of presenteeism: approx. £28 billion
    • Annual cost of staff turnover: approx. £22 billion
    • Annual cost of absenteeism: approx. £6 billion
  • The total annual cost of mental ill health to employers have increased by 25% since 2019.
  • For every £1 spent by employers on mental health interventions, employers could get back £5.30 in reduced absence, presenteeism, and staff turnover.
  • 55% of respondents, in the CIPD good work index survey, who have experienced depression in the past 12 months said work had contributed, however, only 36% discussed this with their boss or employer.
  • One third expect or would like more support for their mental health and wellbeing from their employers

The reality beyond the numbers 

But what is more meaningful than any financial impact, is the very real threat to life, and the impact on families that mental health can have. I have personally lost several friends in my journey, who were in their 30s, and left behind wives/husbands and children in the midst of their mental health and subsequent addictions to whatever unhealthy coping mechanism they gravitated towards in lieu of the right help.

So on a human level – it is a deeply serious subject that needs addressing. No one should feel less than, insufficient or worthless as a result of their working environment and subsequent impact on mental health, or as a result of their mental health and then their working environment compounding the issue.

The marriage of work and mental health or ‘the balancing act’

So when looking at the problem some may think, what has the more dramatic issue of life and self-worth that is associated with poor mental health, have to do with an employer and the workplace?

The real fact is business performance and mental health are inextricably linked. There is no way of separating the two. There is a tipping point in the balancing act, where an employer needs to step back and the employee seek professional help. But if the employee does not feel they can move past the stigma of the workplace then this can be difficult, and there is no chance of getting to help the employee prior to it becoming a bigger, professional issue.

The employer is not going to want their employee to experience poor mental health, they will want them to have happy and purposeful lives, at the same time as helping increase workplace efficiencies and profitability. So whilst the actions of one party don’t exclusively result in the negative impact on the other, from my experience it is an inseparable issue and there is a lot that can be done to help.

Conversely – there is also a balancing act to be applied by employers when assessing the support needed. For example, it is unlikely if someone is feeling some ‘butterflies’ around a presentation, that this equates to ongoing anxiety and therefore time off work being required.

How do we start moving towards a solution?

Understanding the stigma and the broader cultural context is critical in highlighting what interventions will work. Depending on the culture and environment that an employee is in, very different approaches need to be taken to support employees and their family members and broader communities, which these negative impacts trickle down to according to the MHI.

The starting point on all this surely has to be breaking down the wellness illusion and moving into vulnerability to open up the core issues. Do I have the courage, support, and trust to be vulnerable. Can I be honest and say I am having problems managing my day to day life, and understand that this doesn’t mean I am less able, less successful or weak – but rather I am human and I am flawed, as we all are.

According to MHFA England:

  • Only 38% of HR respondents, in a CIPD Health and wellbeing at work survey, think line managers in their organisation are confident to have sensitive conversations and signpost staff to expert sources of help if needed; and
  • Just over a quarter of workers (26%) say they struggle to relax in their personal time because of work.

So there is seemingly a current impasse between the problem and the solution. Between leaders and employees. Between culture and the core issue.

Opening the door through vulnerability 

To take the vulnerability point one step further, all great leaders will carry with them some form of self-awareness, and good communicators who exercise compassion, dexterity and empathy will have an understanding of their own shortcomings. None of this is possible without first exercising vulnerability and being honest. But it is on the senior leaders in an organisation to help create that space for employees.

According to the MHI there are billions of dollars around the globe going into wellness benefits. But they think the challenge is that almost all the focus is on remediating symptoms rather than getting at the root cause of employee burnout and mental health. Instead, employers should step back and reflect on the structural challenges of the environment, which may be causing the issues in the first place.

So a good starting point is leading with the vulnerability through others in the organisation, those who have already navigated through the worst of their own experience (or the experience of someone close to them), and have a learning to pass on. Now this doesn’t mean employees and leaders have to talk about everything in their lives, but rather leave the door slightly ajar for the individual to push open and explore further.

If we can’t talk honestly and vulnerably, it can deeply affect mental health. Mental health impacts physical health. You can’t have good overall health without good mental health. This is the cultural change referred to below.

On cultural change or a new baseline 

Cultural change is a bit of a phenomenon these days, I hear it batted about semi-frequently, in all professions. It is surely never more relevant that in a challenge such as mental health. The MHI give several key suggestions as to how to implement change as root level:

  • One of the things the MHI asked in their survey was the strongest predictors of burnout symptoms and other negative outcomes. One of these drivers, by a large margin, was toxic behaviour, things that leave you, or leave an employee, feeling unvalued, unsafe - something that might feel like a demeaning treatment, non-inclusive behaviour, really extreme competition, abuse of management, or unethical behaviours. All those can become a cultural norm that can really feed into toxic behaviour. There is balance to found here as throughout this issue.
  • Treat toxic behaviour as a lack of competence. That would mean that it starts to be incorporated into performance reviews. You start to ensure you’re getting indicators in upward feedback, and you have measures and ways of picking up signs of toxic behaviour.
  • Focus on the degree to which leaders are cultivating supportive, psychologically safe work environments. By amplifying compassionate leadership, for example, or cultivating a supportive environment.
  • Leaders should also come up with time-bound, measurable goals around mental health.
  • Destigmatizing mental health, through honest communication (vulnerability), starting with the leadership.
  • Ongoing measurements – conduct a survey, formulate a study, and get the facts of the employee base.

In concluding

The whole topic of mental health and the workplace can be a daunting one, it is easy to write an article, or have a quick chat with someone – but truly implementing change is tough. Effective change is going to need integrity, it is easy to criticize leadership, they are human so they will fall short, and this shouldn’t mean they are put into the firing line. However, accountability and compassion, from the top down will go a long way at starting to look at some of the solutions outlined in this article. It is keeping a watchful eye on the balancing scales to ensure the treatment of the issue within the organisation doesn’t lead to a topping point.

The founding principle in all of this, of course, is trust. Without any trust – no one is going to talk. Without the communication there is no starting point. So by my account at least, leading with vulnerability in the challenges leadership have faced, may just be the road to trust, communication and effective change. Perhaps some may even see this article as the first step.