Work-related mental health conditions have become a major concern in Australia as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to create a surge in mental health issues. Workers are struggling to tackle burnout, hyperconnectivity, higher workloads or even job losses and combined with the stress and anxiety induced by a global pandemic it’s pushing workforces to a knife edge.
The good news is that the future ahead is a bright one.
My core belief is that humans are fundamentally good, especially during times of crisis and suffering. This, combined with organisations' clear willingness to help build a stronger and more robust workforce means the mental health problems and challenges we face will only keep improving.
So what can leaders do to drive change?
boomerang back to randstad
Having worked extensively across culture transformation and workplace mental health as a psychologist and commercial leader, it was a natural move for me to boomerang back to Randstad after stepping away from the business seven years ago.
I’m naturally propelled toward an effective culture workplace that provides a sense of psychological safety combined with mutual respect and trust. To me, my return to Randstad has been like a warm embrace, akin to a warm blanket on a cold day.
As far as I’m concerned, my move to the business to drive forward workplace mental health couldn’t have come at a better time given the trends I’ve seen develop at an alarmingly fast pace over the past 18 months.
The COVID-19 pandemic, like a wildfire in the bush, has changed the way we work and also the way we live our lives - no one has escaped its grasp. As a result, our mental health is suffering. In the four weeks to 24 January 2021, the use of crisis and support organisations and online mental health information services jumped 27.2% compared to the same period last year as Australians look to get on top of their mental health in light of the pandemic.
In the working world, all of a sudden I’ve seen leaders that would have previously engaged with me for intermittent leadership coaching or team-building advice, now seeking me out with much more determination and regularity, to work through their first experiences of anxiety or depression.
Meanwhile, others have experienced redundancy for the first time in their long careers (myself included). And for many of us, if we are not in demand in our professional lives, it can terrorise our psyche, making us feel ostracised, even inadequate.
If that’s not enough of a challenge in itself, people are spending an inordinate time at home with their partners, and their relationships are imploding, with domestic violence occurrences also increasing at an unprecedented rate.
Sadly, the new working world means workers are forced into a boundaryless working environment, where they’re hyperconnected and overstimulated with no opportunity to escape or switch off from work. Roy Morgan research in June 2020 showed that 32% of the working population (or 4.3 million Australians) were working from home.
In amongst all of this psychological suffering, there is also a deep universal sadness, and recognition that there are other countries, economies and communities who are suffering much more at the hands of the crisis.
It’s a stark and uncomfortable reality, but it's one that only further highlights how important it is for organisations to focus on how they can remove the stigma around mental health and put measures in place to support and help workers navigate through their own personal mental health challenges.
a pandemic shift
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There is so much talk about how the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a surge in mental health issues. And while I’ve certainly increasingly observed what I call a ‘veil of suffering’ emerging among my typically high-functioning network of friends and professional colleagues over the past 18 months, it’s important to remember that the growing mental health crisis backdates much further to when the concept of a coronavirus pandemic was merely a plot in a Hollywood blockbuster movie, far removed from any reality we live and breathe.
It’s vital to remind ourselves that when it comes to the mental health crisis, we’re not facing anything new. In fact, as one of the most prominent frontiers in corporate psychology, workplace mental health has received increasing recognition over the past decade.
The difference now is that the pandemic has made the mental health crisis impossible to ignore. The onset of COVID-19 has not only highlighted the importance of mental health in the workplace, but it has compelled leaders to place the wellbeing of their employees significantly further up the organisational agenda.
And rightly so.
Mental health costs the Australian economy billions - a whopping $220 billion according to the latest Productivity Commission report - in lost productivity, workers compensation claims and lower economic participation. Not to mention the added pressure it puts on government resources and human services, and the social and emotional costs such as pain and suffering.
It’s clear then that the cost of ignoring the problem is far greater than the cost of developing and implementing strategies in order to create a safe and healthy workplace.
Between the cost of workplace mental health, and the task of creating workplaces that nurture, rather than hinder, our mental resilience means businesses are facing some challenges which need to be addressed quickly and effectively.
removing the stigma
The good news is that despite the hurdles that workplace mental health can pose, there are some things that organisations and their leaders can do to strike while the iron is hot.
de-mystify mental health
Organisations need to make the conversation around mental health both more palatable and also relevant for their workers. Organisations need to dedicate time and energy to identify the symptoms of mental health conditions, understand the critical challenges that their workers face, and the psychological health and wellbeing of those people as a result of those challenges.
avoid the 'too-hard basket'
When something is challenging to manage, it's easy to avoid it entirely and instead place it into the 'too-hard basket' where it'll likely stay forever. And this is exactly what organisations need to avoid doing - consciously or subconsciously.
No matter how difficult the conversation or task is, mental health should never be placed into the 'too-hard basket'. Instead, it needs to be worked through by taking some simple but proactive steps, guided by expert advice, to help build the mental resilience of workers.
equip workplaces to be mentally healthy
It is vital for organisations to have an open conversation around workplace mental health and to ensure the solutions to overcome any challenges are easily manageable. The key has the confidence to intervene early and put outstanding leadership and expert guidance in place to ensure those facing mental health challenges are fully supported.
Because doing all of these things combined will not only enable organisations to build a more robust, more resilient workforce, it also removes the stigma around mental health, which in turn. By doing this, conversations are more accessible, tasks aren't as daunting, and the solutions are manageable, which means the result is even more improvement… which then, in turn, creates a more robust, more resilient workforce.
humans are fundamentally good
When all is said and done, my core belief is that humans are fundamentally good and that they will continue to look after each other during times of crisis and suffering.
Sure, this is a stark contrast to the myth that humans by nature are selfish, aggressive and quick to panic. Dutch biologist Frans de Waal calls the veneer theory, which is the idea that civilisation is nothing more than a thin veneer that will crack at the slightest sign of stress or provocation.
You could call me an optimist, but I’m confident I’m not alone in realising that the past 18 months have only shown that faith and optimism are justified.
It’s clear that when a crisis looms - and we in Australia have suffered a lot of them in recent years, from the global pandemic to bushfires, flooding and even mass redundancies amid economic turmoil - humans often revert to the best version of themselves.
We’re compassionate, a sense of community drives us, we unite to help those in distress, we rally around our most vulnerable people, and we club together to stand up against wrongdoings.
When I think about the outlook for mental health in the workplace, I want to avoid repeating what many others have already said.
The critical point I want to get across is that, as far as I’m concerned, the future looks bright. Sure there will continue to be challenges and hurdles, and the road ahead will be tumultuous, but my core belief about the fundamental goodness inside every one of us remains a beacon of light.
great systemic change
The growing mental health crisis, exacerbated and made impossible to ignore thanks to the global coronavirus pandemic, will continue to impact organisations and their workers well into the future.
Thankfully, there are many steps that organisations can take to facilitate the mental health of individuals in the workplace, remove the stigma around mental health suffering and create a stronger, more robust and resilient workforce.
In the meantime, Randstad will continue to transform organisations through profound systemic change, supportive leadership, assisting the growth of a resilient workplace and helping those organisations solve their most costly and complex people challenges.