Employee wellbeing and a focus on mental health are hot topics these days, and rightly so. To remain in business, many companies need to work leaner and in our competitive marketplaces, a focus on results is inevitable.
Greater competition and the need for reduced costs leads to increased stress and pressure for teams, along with the associated issues that come with them. Lack of sleep, fatigue, anxiety, apathy … and the list goes on.
The Band-Aid Solution to Improve Employee Wellbeing
Research from the Black Dog Institute states that around 1 in 5 Australians will experience a mental illness in any year. The highest prevalence of mental illness is in the 18 – 24 age group. This is right about the time when we are welcoming them into our workplaces.
In the USA, almost half of adults will experience mental illness over their lifetime. Many of the people making up these statistics are in our workplaces, working in and leading our teams.
At the same time, what I’m noticing in many workplaces is an increase in the introduction of Mental Health and Wellbeing programs. This is a good thing, because it is starting to raise awareness of common mental health challenges as well as the impact of stress in the workplace.
Some of the aspects these programs cover are:
- Increased awareness of mental health issues and stress impacts
- Employee assistance, such as a hotline to call in the case of concerns or questions; and
- Tools to help people have open conversations about mental health.
These aspects are helpful and needed in our workplaces, but they aren’t the complete answer. They provide an awareness and an opportunity to get help. This is a good starting point, but it isn’t enough.
An employee wellbeing program is nothing more than a “tick the box” exercise if it isn’t accompanied by a change in behaviour.
A Shift In Leadership Behaviour Is What’s Needed to Improve Employee Wellbeing
Employee wellbeing programs will continue to just be a band-aid fix if leadership and organisational behaviour remains the same.
I’ve seen situations where employee wellbeing programs have been implemented, but nothing changes. The intense deadlines, under-resourced teams and unreasonable workloads remain.
So what are we saying here?
Are mental health and employee wellbeing a focus only when a crisis occurs? Does somebody need to have a heart attack or be diagnosed with depression or anxiety before we release the pressure?
Many leaders continue to pile the pressure onto their teams, relying on their resilience to keep going.
There’s that word … resilience.
But resilience isn’t meant to be putting up with bad conditions and unreasonable workloads for long periods. It’s meant to be about persevering and overcoming short to medium-term challenges.
Leaders who are looking for their teams to be “resilient” all the time are expecting them to continue putting up with unnecessary stress and pressure without complaining.
And that can’t be good for employee wellbeing.
Related: Why Being Resilient Will Kill You.
What You Can Do to Promote Employee Wellbeing In Your Team
If we really care about employee wellbeing, we need to start acting like it. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as rolling out a fancy employee wellbeing program, because the work continues the same way around it.
Even though awareness of mental health issues is growing, it is still uncomfortable for people to raise them openly in the workplace. I think part of the problem is that mental health and stress issues are often relatively intangible.
When somebody breaks their leg, it’s “Whoah, you’d better get to the hospital.” But when someone is stressed and not sleeping, they can continue to drag themselves into work each day and leaders let it happen because it isn’t an issue … yet.
I think it’s a problem if we need to get to the mental health equivalent of the broken leg before we take action.
So here are some simple ideas to promote employee wellbeing in your team.
1. Start Being Observant
Stop the constant busyness and take a look at your team.
Are people working long hours, all the time? Do you notice emotional outbursts? Are people apathetic, uncaring and unmotivated? Is there conflict and irritability? Are people checking and responding to emails at all hours of the day and night? Are people getting sick more often, or just not showing up to work?
Being observant means closing your laptop, putting down your phone and having a think about the people in your team and how they are behaving.
Related: The Power of Paying Attention.
2. Have Real Conversations About Workload
It’s not really enough to just ask your team about their workload, unless you’re prepared to do something about it.
I get it, there are project deadlines and busy periods and that’s fine. But when high workloads become the norm, it’s a problem. When there is no end in sight, no solution on the horizon to fix the workload issue, then it’s time for action.
Talk to your people about their workload. If they are too busy, find an option to take the pressure off. This might mean you need to:
- Find somebody else to lend a hand. Let people know they don’t need to be a hero. Get help from elsewhere in your team or organisation, or make a case to hire in somebody.
- Nail down the priorities. Realise that not everything is important right now
- Push back on your boss. If your boss demands work that is burning out your team, it’s time to push back, or find a better way to get it done.
Workload conversations are pointless if you just want to hear one thing: “It’s OK”. So if your conversation tells you there’s a problem, it’s time to take action.
Workload and Flexibility
Sometimes, workload isn’t really the problem. The stress of trying to juggle home life and work might be. It can be stressful when you’re trying to attend a medical appointment or take your kids to school when the boss demands you’re at your desk at 8am.
Promoting flexible working is one way to cut down on the stress of trying to be in two places at once. Working from home and allowing flexible working hours can go a long way to helping your people find the right balance.
3. Be a Role Model
Your behaviour matters, because your team is watching you.
Are you sending emails late at night? That’s the example you set.
Are you often working late? That’s what your people are seeing.
Do you talk about how busy you are, with your back to back meetings all day? That’s what your team hears.
Do you tease people who come in later than you, even in fun? That’s the message you send.
Do you keep putting up with unreasonable deadlines and workload yourself? You’re setting the standard.
Are you standing idle while bullying, harassment or other bad behaviour happens on your watch? That’s the behaviour you are saying is Ok.
All of these actions can set the scene for increased stress and mental health problems. When you show these behaviours to your team, they start to think that’s what you respect, and what you want.
They start to think you want them to respond to emails late at night. They think you want them to work late. Perhaps they think you respect people who are “always busy”.
I can hear your response now. “But I don’t expect those things from my team at all.”
I get it, I believe you. But your behaviour speaks volumes and that’s what your team sees.
Address Performance and Behavioural Issues
Individual performance issues with just one person can impact other team members. Perhaps someone can’t do their work, which means it gets dumped onto somebody else.
Maybe an individual’s behaviour is disruptive to other people in the team, preventing them from doing their work. Or worse, there could be bullying, harassment or other disrespectful behaviour that is sending stress and anxiety levels skyrocketing.
You’re going to need to solve these issues in a timely manner, before they start to eat away at your team. When performance and behaviour issues persist, stress increases, motivation decreases and employee wellbeing suffers.
If you tolerate bad behaviour and performance, that’s the message you’re sending to your team.
Don’t Force Your Team to Make a Hard Choice
Let’s take the example of constantly working long hours. If you do it, that’s what your team begins to think you want, even if you don’t actually want that for them.
This simple behaviour puts pressure on your team. Some team members might stay later than usual, to make it seem like they work harder. Others will leave at the normal time, but will feel bad because they think you disapprove of it.
The simple choice that your team members are forced to make here will subtly increase stress. And each different behaviour adds another layer of that stress.
I used to have a boss who worked really late, all the time. I didn’t want to do that and my work was going fine, so I usually left at the normal time unless there was a pressing deadline.
But I still had the fleeting thought that “Maybe she is annoyed that I don’t stay late”. I didn’t let this stop me, but it still had the effect of making me worry from time to time.
A Focus On Employee Wellbeing Will Create Better Workplaces
I believe that hard work and hitting deadlines is important. Deadlines and the satisfaction of doing hard work can be a powerful motivational force for people.
However, if the deadlines are unrelenting, the workload is always too high and the stress levels are through the roof, you’ll cause long-term damage.
Short-term thinking is “I’ll just push my team harder to hit this deadline”.
Long-term thinking means planning the work sensibly, resourcing your team appropriately and focusing on the priorities so you don’t burn people out. They’ll stay longer, you’ll retain more team knowledge and build a team that works well together.
I believe that a motivated, satisfied and engaged team who work less hours can be more productive over the long term, than a team that is always driven hard and constantly struggling with stress.
If you believe it too, then there is no alternative but to focus on safeguarding the wellbeing of your team through your leadership behaviour.
Do you agree or disagree? Are you seeing a shift in behaviours from a focus on employee wellbeing? Or is it all just lip-service?