To Improve Workplace Health, Let’s Bring Back the Human Factor

We have made progress in making hiring and firing processes more open and fairer in recent decades, but is it enough? Are employers and employees better off? Much of our progress has come in the legal arena, in large part because of the Americans with Disabilities Act and other statutes that have reduced or eliminated discrimination based on chronic disease or condition. We applaud this progress. But we also recognize that in developing rules about what can and cannot be discussed and disclosed in the workplace, we have created an unintended consequence as well. We’ve eliminated the human factor in much of the employer/employee relationship. And, we would argue, that has cost productivity and led to the kinds of often toxic, demeaning, and dehumanizing workplaces that exist today.

Mental Health America and the Faas Foundation have been working to assess and improve workplace health and mental health. Our initial goal was to develop processes by which employers could better recognize and support valued employees with mental health challenges. As we did our work, it became clearer that it isn’t only the mental health challenges people bring to the workplace that we need to address; it is the mental health challenges that evolve or worsen from the stress of the workplace.

Focusing on workplace stress might in fact be the key to improving workplace mental health.

Consider the following statistics from Mind the Workplace, a report we recently released from a survey of more than 17,000 employees across nineteen industries:

  • Just under half feel that their employer appropriately deals with co-workers who are not doing their jobs.
  • Over 40 percent feel that employees are rarely or never held accountable for their work, regardless of their position in the organization.
  • Over 45 percent feel some employees are being unfairly recognized, while others with better experience and skills don’t get recognized.
  • Over 50 percent feel that they could be fired or let go at any time.
  • Over 45 percent feel their organization is overly focused on trivial activities.
  • Only 26 percent feel their organization has realistic expectations about their workload.

It is clear from this research that performance management is a huge contributor to workplace stress.

And while performance management is at the heart of the annual- and semi-annual review process today, there are not very many employees – only 35 percent – who feel confident that the will have the support of their supervisor when things get hard for them in the workplace. This leads to a sense of loneliness and isolation. Former Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy recently argued in an essay in the Harvard Business Review that there is a “loneliness epidemic” in the American workplace, writing that “many employees – and half of CEOs – report feeling lonely in their roles.”

So, what should we do about this?

An important first step is for employers to learn how their employees are feeling and why they feel the way they do. It is easy to survey employees quickly and anonymously these days via online screening tools. The only obstacle is fear of the response. That fear can be addressed by understanding how best to respond to the information gathered.  There are many tools and strategies to help with that.

In a related project, a third partner of ours – the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence – has launched an Emotional Revolution in the Workplace initiative. Through this innovative program, Yale researchers are taking a deeper dive into the culture of the American workplace, and developing new strategies for building on what’s best in that culture to improve workplace health and well-being.

Here’s what we recommend – a creative, energetic worker review process that forward-thinking employers can substitute for the old, tired annual reviews. This process should begin with an employer’s own workplace survey. It should then result in a covenant with all employees, which can be used to:

  • Give managers and supervisors the tools they need to address the barriers to employees working to their full potential and capacities.
  • Normalize critical discussions among managers and subordinates by training emotional intelligence.
  • Develop and agree on clear, measurable and reasonable expectations for the employee, and determine what the employee needs to be able to deliver on those expectations.
  • Make the changes required to support supervisors and employees.
  • Conduct regular and ongoing meetings using the covenant as the basis for the discussions.

What this would accomplish is simple. It will bring the human element back into the equation. And it will bring more productivity back into the workplace.

Andrew Faas established the Faas Foundation in 2005 to promote wellness and well-being in all aspects of our society. He is also a Public Voices Fellow at Yale University. Paul Gionfriddo is President and CEO of Mental Health America.

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