Mindfulness and wellness are more talked about than ever before, and more tech tools than ever are appearing to help us monitor and manage our mental state. Mental Health Awareness Week took place in May. Men’s Health Week is raising awareness of the disproportionate impact of mental health issues on men, with suicide ranked the second biggest killer behind cardiovascular disease.
Yet since 2013, mental health issues have been the leading cause of sickness-related work leave, costing Australia $12 billion a year. When workers take extended leave for work-related mental stress, the average absence is 15.7 weeks – three times longer than any other workers compensation claims. Clearly there’s a significant cost to mental anguish at a company level. Either we pay now or we pay later.
There’s a lot of work to be done. As part of Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, Cascade HR found that 40% of 540 workers surveyed felt their boss had taken enough proactive steps to protect mental wellness. That leaves 60% who feel there’s more to be done – a significant majority.
Safe Work Australia found that work pressure is the leading reason for work-related mental disorders. A major factor is the encroachment of work into our personal lives. Noticing, reading, or responding to an email or call may not seem like work but it all starts to add up. Lack of mental space cuts into our ability to unwind and even to form long-term memories. The bleeding of work emails, calls, and notifications into our home time has become increasingly common thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones and an abundance of apps that come with us regardless of whether we’re on the clock.
In France, the government put in place legislation that stops employers sapping staff member’s free time. They’ve sent a message that they see a “right to disconnect” as more than an expectation for workers. And so it should be. Sure, there may be times when we want to or need to check our email out of work, but just because the Internet was created it doesn’t mean that out-of-office hours communications should be the new norm. HR should be taking this on as an issue that deserves a company-wide policy response.
From measurement to better management
Besides recognizing the subtle but clear impact of constant communication on employees’ well being, moving the needle on employee well-being demands HR develops a well-informed understanding of the commercial impact of mental anguish on business performance and a reframing of how we measure the impact of poor mental health within the workforce.
For too long, our mental health status has been measured with reference to absenteeism – employees taking time off work for a mental health day. By the time the employee feels incapable of coming to work because it’s all too much, the situation has already gone too far. Rather than evaluating managers’ performance based on retention of staff or complaints, how about tying KPIs to their team’s engagement, satisfaction, and well-being?
Beyond this, we still need to normalize conversations around mental health. As the recent tragic deaths of U.S. celebrities Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain show, it’s not always obvious when people are suffering – and stigma is a big reason. Letting our bosses and co-workers know we’re not doing well shouldn’t stir fears that we’ll be looked at as “crazy.” Bourdain’s death in particular has been linked to a “punishing work schedule.”
We need to do more to develop the right language to talk about how mental health affects people. Many people are far more comfortable and adept at talking about breaking an arm or having their appendix removed than they are at getting what it means to be depressed or anxious.
There’s increasing evidence available to demonstrate the connection between a mentally healthy workforce and business performance. HR must pay heed and be well armed with the right statistics that show why mental health in the workplace matters. One way to get well acquainted with the commercial thinking about mental health is to talk to organizations that offer employee assistance programs that include counseling and related services to businesses. It’s often bundled as part of an insurance benefit. A key part of enabling mental health to move to the forefront in your business is for HR to better understand and communicate both the value of such programs and the cost associated with employees accessing or not accessing them.
Besides the fact that increasing numbers of people are looking to work for companies who make a clear effort to do right by their employees, there are other costs associated with not acting on mental health in a meaningful way. When we fire someone who is not performing at their peak instead of giving them support in a difficult time, or when we push someone to the point where they leave the business because they feel unsupported in a time of high stress, the associated recruitment costs can be enormous. When a manager has to upskill and integrate a new worker, there’s lost productivity. In the U.S., it adds up to $300 billion a year. We would do much better to understand and address why that staff member was not performing well.
HR has a moral imperative and a chance to add strategic value in the business by taking the lead on mental health. This is not a one-week-a-year issue. This is a 24/7 issue. If HR leaders don’t step up first, it’s unlikely anyone else will.