Whether it’s due to increased levels of stress both in and outside the work environment, increased recognition of mental health as a genuine concept, or the greater emphasis wellness concepts have received in the past few years, more employers than ever are taking their employees’ psychological balance seriously.
If this isn’t done effectively, the best case scenario is that employees will gradually become less engaged with their team at work and less interested in their tasks, more likely to start interpersonal conflicts and more prone to making avoidable mistakes, either through indifference or because they find it difficult to concentrate. If the situation is allowed to worsen, effects like long-term absences due to medical conditions caused by stress, alcoholism and diagnosable mental illness will result. These can all mean significant costs to employers, and it may not be obvious that high levels of workplace stress are to blame.
While these problems certainly exist, so do many ways to mitigate their severity. If your company has not yet done so, putting policies in place to help employees overcome work-related psychological issues should be an enterprise-level priority.
Only a few decades ago, a person might have started working at a company on his eighteenth birthday and never leave until he retired. Authority was hierarchical, and even when this didn’t work, at least there was no uncertainty as to what was expected in any role and who was ultimately responsible. Though a phrase like “equal opportunities” would have had business managers scratching their heads, consistent hard work could be expected to lead to promotion over time. Loyalty to a company was expected, but also usually a two-way street.
The key difference between then and now, when talking about a workforce’s mental health, is the current lack of stability. Nobody straight out of college expects to spend their entire working life at the first company they join. People in almost any role are expected to deal with multiple things simultaneously, and it’s no longer as easy to put off a difficult decision until the next day. Many workers have reporting lines to several people, and are required to manage their own time with limited guidance. Mergers, changes in the market or any of a dozen factors can mean being downsized almost without warning.
Given this level of uncertainty, is it any wonder the average modern employee is stressed? Millenials often value the happiness of their families and the lifestyle they are able to lead more highly than the mere number on their paycheck. Some of the most successful, fast-moving companies have recognized this fact and offer work/life balance support in the form of generous maternity and paternity leave, flexible working arrangements, on-site gyms and more. This allows them to attract and retain top talent, while their competitors experience a slow but seemingly relentless drain on both their everyday efficiencies and their top performers.
Steps to Take
Ultimately, the goal has to be to create a culture in which mental health issues can be discussed openly without fear of repercussions. However, this cannot be achieved in one day, so let’s examine some of the most economical actions which can also be implemented most easily.
Make Resources Available
The impact of workplace stress, and its many possible consequences, is magnified by a generally high level of ignorance surrounding it. While dumping a pile of pamphlets on the break room coffee table might not be an effective way to spread awareness, other routes are open to you. Health and safety training can incorporate advice such as taking occasional breaks and ways of defusing emotional tension.
In many positions, offering flexible working options is not only possible but can actually improve productivity. There’s no reason to force a parent with small children to spend five days a week in the office when three will do, while employees who feel overwhelmed should be able to take a day off without having to fight tooth and nail for it. This may be facilitated by some investment in mobile IT infrastructure.
Since stressful situations are going to crop up no matter what you do, providing employees with the means to deal with it outside of work is not only a gesture which will be appreciated, but can prevent initially low levels of stress from snowballing into a real problem. Subsidized gym memberships and providing free online counseling are ways to start, while company-sponsored social events such as fun runs are also good ideas.
Uncertainty is one of the greatest sources of stress. Managers at all levels, regardless of their personal style, should be aware of the importance of clearly communicating a team or company’s goals, how they will be achieved and what is expected of each worker. This becomes especially important during times of change.
Additionally, although dealing with mental health issues in the workplace remains a HR function, every manager should be able to recognize the signs of conditions such as depression and anxiety. A little guidance in the proper way to resolve conflicts will also go a long way in promoting a positive work environment.
It’s no secret that productivity and success have their roots in teams, more often than individuals. Unfortunately, many HR professionals are still not approaching the question of emotional intelligence in any kind of systematic way when evaluating candidates. While technical competencies are still much easier to assess, there are certain questions you can ask, and even tests you can administer, to identify qualified but unsuitable applicants.
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The bottom-line results of an uncomfortable or even toxic work environment may not be immediately apparent, but they are certainly real. There’s no excuse for HR professionals to wait until the wheels fall off before taking action, as there are plenty of things that can be done long before the situation becomes unrecoverable.