Opinion article

Mental health in the modern workplace

Evidence clearly demonstrates that healthy workplaces are more creative, have better staff engagement, increased retention, improved performance and greater sustainability, writes Therese Joyce, Manager, Mental Health & Wellbeing, Fisher Leadership.

After two and a half years of a global pandemic, wellbeing at work is more important than ever. Evidence clearly demonstrates that healthy workplaces are more creative, have better staff engagement, increased retention, improved performance and greater sustainability. A mentally healthy workplace is also more than just a nice-to-have, it is a legal obligation and an ethical responsibility.

Today we have an extraordinary opportunity to make meaningful change. We have never been through a global pandemic before and we have therefore never returned to work after one. We will not be returning to the lockdowns of 2020 or 2021, nor should we return to life pre-COVID. How often have we heard about the need for disruption? Here we are with the greatest global disruption of our lifetime – let's not waste this opportunity by going backwards to ‘what we've always done’. 

The cost of lost productivity to Australian business attributed to mental ill-health is $39 billion every year. In 2014, research by Beyond Blue and PwC found a return of $2.40 for every dollar invested in mental health initiatives. In 2020, Deloitte found this increased, with up to $11 return on investment (ROI) for every dollar invested. However, mental ill-health will not be fixed by lunchtime yoga and bowls of fruit. Leaders must prioritise mental health as an organisational strategy.

Wellbeing at work is a dual responsibility, shared between employees and the organisation. After such relentless change, it is neither appropriate nor realistic to put the responsibility for resilience and health entirely on the individual. As COVID-19 has affected people differently, we must not forget the human factor at a uniquely personal level and give attention to our systemic approach through processes and policies. The experience of the past two years has differed depending on people’s living environment, whether they have school-aged children, live alone, and according to individual differences in discomfort with uncertainty. It is much more likely to have negatively impacted women and it has been significantly more damaging to young adults aged 18-24. 

While some people are flourishing and keen to get back to life as usual, others are not. Many people are exhausted. Ongoing uncertainty affects existing levels of anxiety or mental ill-health, and change fatigue is real. When we are overwhelmed and exhausted, it may not be enough to simply have a rest. Some people are showing signs of burnout. In 2019 the World Health Organisation defined burnout as a “syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” There are evidence-based ways to support people to prevent or overcome burnout. Transparency and clear communication are more important than ever.

How can employers manage workload in a productive and helpful way?

  • Consciously breaking larger projects into smaller steps can help these seem less overwhelming;
  • Identify smaller goals along the way to increase the sense of accomplishment, and allow people to regain control and autonomy in their work;
  • When people are burnt out, exhausted and have change fatigue, it is a complex problem. We cannot expect individuals to solve this with the fundamentals of exercise, good nutrition, and sleep (though they help immensely at a personal level). Businesses should review workloads and make systemic changes where possible, looking for opportunities to reduce bureaucracy and streamline processes; and
  • Look to ways you can decrease uncertainty. If you are introducing change, highlight the elements that will stay the same.

It is also important to clearly articulate your expectations on location of work, including if remote or onsite is entirely optional. If two or three days per week in the office have been mandated, explain why and set a timeline. Try things out and consistently review, revise and re-evaluate. 

For many, boundaries have blurred over the past few years. Our home has become our office. The kitchen table our children’s school. Respect and encourage time away from work, a ritual to signify the end to the workday. Discourage working over the weekend or into the evenings, and model this at the leadership level. 

Nobody knows the perfect way to do this. We can establish what this new world of work looks like. Leaders must lead with curiosity, compassion and open communication. The agility used to adapt and respond over the past few years should continue to create a healthier modern workplace that truly values our people as well as our productivity. 

About the authors

Therese Joyce

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Therese Joyce has over two decades of experience in international management and leading change. She was previously the Associate Director of the Centre for Positive Psychology at The University of Melbourne and holds a MSc. in Applied Positive Psychology. Areas of expertise include wellbeing, stress management, resilience and organizational performance.

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