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A New Era of Workplace Safety: Prioritizing Psychosocial Health

For too long, the workplace has been viewed as a mystical place where we bring a version of ourselves that is unbreakable. It’s a version of ourselves that powers through every obstacle, even if it takes a toll on our health. Sadly, it’s a version that is essentially unsustainable. How often have we seen an employee get lauded for “going above and beyond,” even when we know that what we’re saying is just code for working through illness. Or forsaking personal commitment? Or working well beyond reasonable and safe hours?

That attitude–celebrating the workaholic, to put it bluntly–is an example of how the conversation around mental health has been too narrow. It’s especially been too narrow when discussing mental health in the workplace. Also, until now, occupational health and safety management was focused almost exclusively on physical safety rather than psychological health. That changed this past summer. An international standard was issued in June to provide a structural framework to help businesses manage psychological health and well-being in the workplace.

In essence, the ISO 45003 Psychological Health and Safety at Work guidelines have two goals:

  1. Lay out global standards for organizations to create and administer an environment where the psychosocial well-being of employees is as clearly defined and cared for as their physical safety
  2. Offer a helpful baseline for HR professionals across industries to evaluate how effectively their organizations are providing a psychosocially healthy atmosphere, without the need for in-house specialists with deep expertise in mental health

For HR and training leaders, it’s important to recognize:

  • Three common mental health and wellness issues that organizations face
  • How the new standards for workplace safety could lead to a more psychosocially healthy work environment

1. A Stigmatized or Nonexistent Support System

The pandemic highlighted the lack of supportive environments for employee mental health at an organizational level. It also shed light on unsustainable and unfair workloads and untimely or ineffective recognition practices. Because of these issues, employees have very little time during the workday and very few, if any, tools to take care of themselves psychologically or emotionally. In a 2021 survey that covered 46 countries, 89 percent of respondents said their work-life was worsening. Eighty-five percent said their well-being had declined, and 56 percent said their job demands had increased.

A strategy for change: Discussing mental health openly at work starts with a clear organizational strategy. You need to create an environment of psychological safety. That means a workplace where employees feel comfortable being themselves and discussing emotional and mental concerns. The ISO guidelines go a step further. They ask top leaders to remember the important role they play in supporting these conversations. They also ask leadership to set a culture of protection from reprisal or judgment for employees who speak up.

2. A Diverse Workforce Has Diverse Mental Wellness Needs

More than nine out of 10 respondents in a 2021 survey felt that mental health should be a focus within the company culture, up from 86 percent in 2019. The increase shouldn’t be surprising when you consider that between 2019 and 2021, mental health was cited as an increasingly prevalent reason that employees left their jobs. Overall, 84 percent of respondents felt that at least one workplace factor negatively impacted their mental health. Further, the problem is most acute among Millennials and Gen Z.

The numbers were disproportionately higher among younger workers and members of underrepresented groups. Women, minority groups, remote workers (in some organizations), and the younger generation joining the workforce are all prone to feeling excluded from blanket policies and run-of-the-mill pledges of inclusion.

A strategy for change: Sure, companies have increased investment in employee mental health over the last decade. The global mental wellness industry grew nearly twice as fast as the global economy from 2015–2017 alone. But the quality and reach of these programs are what matters. ISO guidelines call out the need for organizations to consider the diversity of the workforce and the needs of particular groups around a psychosocially healthy workplace.

3. Burnout Remains Pervasive and Prevention Is the Best Cure

Meet the new mantra, same as the old mantra: Prevention is the best medicine. Yu Tse Heng, a researcher who uncovers ways to humanize workplaces, puts it this way: “It starts with employers, to protect employees from becoming resource-depleted in the first place. And it’s also on the employer to provide the resources necessary to support employees’ mental health.” The employee’s responsibility, meanwhile, is to try and understand where their burnout stems from and to craft a way to get out of it.

Even pre-pandemic, the results of implementing mental health programs at work spoke for themselves. In a 2019 study conducted by Deloitte and the Australian Institute of Health & Safety, the ROI for workplace mental health programs yielded $1.62 for every dollar invested. That’s just in one year. For companies with programs that had been implemented over three years, the median ROI was $2.18 for every dollar spent.

A strategy for change: Self-reflection and self-care are crucial to recovering from or preventing burnout. But the ISO reiterates the importance of employers implementing and maintaining support systems in the workplace for burnout prevention. For example, having trained personnel on staff who can take charge of these programs further mitigates the risk of psychosocial damage.

A Significant Opportunity for Organizations Ready for Change

As mental health and workplace safety become increasingly important and open subjects, employers are at a crossroads. Traditional solutions just won’t cut it. A vacation does not erase the dread of returning to a draining work environment. In fact, American workers last year left an average of 33 percent of their allocated paid time off on the table. At the same time, they reported a 49-minute increase in the average workday.

Organizations seeking a transformative solution to employee mental well-being should consider activating the new ISO guidelines. They present an opportunity for companies to take a fresh look at:

  • How they view employee mental health
  • The role their leadership is playing to change the company culture around mental health
  • The effectiveness of their mental health strategy for today’s changing workforce

As with everything around workplace safety, you can be superficial with fixes and apply Band-Aids to mask the issues. Or you can choose to step up and transform how you approach workplace mental health.

Lessons in Leadership Style: Empathy Works [Podcast]

While in a position of power in an organization, it can be difficult to gauge how effective a person’s leadership style may be. Oftentimes employees are nervous to address issues with their supervisors, especially if they think their managers won’t listen to their perspectives.

While there isn’t one right way to lead, more and more research reveals that leaders who practice empathy have better relationships with their teams

A person who can adapt their communication and leadership style to meet the needs of different individuals are liked more and seen as friendlier. This type of leader knows that there isn’t just one way to do things. They can change how they manage their employees based on context and situation. They welcome meaningful feedback and apply it effectively.

Our Guest: Gary DePaul, Ph.D., HR and Leadership Expert

 

The special guest on this week’s episode of #WorkTrends is entrepreneur, author, researcher, and performance consultant Gary DePaul, Ph. D. Books he’s written include Nine Practices of 21st Century Leadership, The Most Effective and Responsible Clinical Training Techniques in Medicine, and his most recent work, What the Heck Is Leadership and Why Should I Care?

When talking with Gary about effective leadership style, he said one of the major things to avoid as a leader is fake collaboration. This happens when a boss creates the illusion of collaborating with their team–but in reality, they’re not listening to others, making all the decisions themselves, and having a one-way conversation. 

Real collaboration, Gary says, can only occur when a supervisor listens and guides their team based on the exchange of ideas. There is no hidden ego or agenda on the boss’s part.

“If we’re going to have real collaboration, you have it so that one person is leading, and everyone else’s role is to inquire. The boss should consider: What is this person saying? Why is it important? Am I understanding it right?” Gary says. “That’s what real collaboration is. When you have that synergy, when you’re focused on what the other person is saying, and you sincerely are listening, using empathy.”

Empathy is Crucial (Whether You’re a Boss or Not)

 

A great way to make your team feel comfortable sharing ideas, Gary says, is to acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses as a leader. Admitting to things you can improve on shows self-awareness. Also, it shows your team that you’re empathetic to any concerns they may have regarding your present leadership style.

For example, Gary says, “If you’re new to being a supervisor, acknowledge it. Recognize you’re going to make mistakes and ask for feedback, informally. Say, ‘How am I doing? I know I’m new at this. What can I do to do this better?’ Do things like thank people and acknowledge them for what they do. And then hold people accountable with the team and hold yourself accountable for what your team does.”

Of course, leaders aren’t the only ones who can benefit from practicing empathy. The best way to get good results at work, whether you’re a CEO or hourly employee,  is to outright ask people for feedback and provide it to others voluntarily. As an employee, you can improve relationships and overall output at work by taking the initiative to interact.

“If you’re not a leader, but you want to connect with your teammates, simply ask your peers how they’re doing!” Gary says. “Check in with them, especially if you’re working in a virtual, remote environment. And give your boss upward feedback!”

Developing a leadership style that works can be difficult. But if you’re empathetic and open to your employees, you’re setting everyone up to improve not just their work output, but their human experience at work!

I hope you enjoy this episode of #WorkTrends. You can learn more useful information on how to develop an empathetic leadership style by connecting with our guest, Gary DePaul, on LinkedIn.

Image by Austin Distel

Avoid the Workplace Talent Cliff [Podcast]

The talent cliff is a phenomenon where businesses lose employees at a rapid rate. It isn’t a new problem, but it regularly appears in times of crisis, such as the 2008 stock market crash, and of course, the 2020-2021 pandemic. Because of the present WFH lifestyle, people are reconsidering their options, keeping their eyes open for new and better career opportunities.

Meaning the talent cliff is a constant threat to business success, especially right now.

Many organizations are in a position to suffer losses of key people who fill critical roles aligned with the organization’s overall business strategy. Finding and filling these roles quickly is essential but not always possible, especially when it’s a job candidate’s market. That’s why it’s important to stay ahead of the game and focus on preventing employees from leaving, rather than scrambling to hire talent later.

Our Guest: Jennifer Thornton, Talent Strategy and Leadership Expert 

 

The special guest on this week’s episode of #WorkTrends is Jennifer Thornton, a sought-after business strategist who has clocked over two decades as an HR professional. She takes an unconventional approach to building workforce development solutions for companies, and her impressive expertise in talent strategy and leadership helped drive the rapid growth of her consulting firm, 304 Coaching.

I asked Jennifer why some businesses wind up staring over the edge of the talent cliff, while others don’t. And the heart of the matter is: Businesses who don’t value employee satisfaction will likely suffer the most.

“When a business starts to take off, they start throwing all their resources into increasing their revenue, opening up new markets,” Jennifer explains. “But what they don’t say at the same time is: What do we need to do for our talent to ensure that they can keep up the pace with our growth?”

“After a company continues to grow, the leaders usually get super directive, and the good people don’t want to work for someone highly directive. So they leave. Then the people you’re left with are the, ‘Yes sir,’ ‘Yes ma’am’ kind of folks. And they’re not telling you the truth. And then all of a sudden the productivity–it just goes straight down–off the cliff!”

How Can Businesses Avoid the Dreaded Talent Cliff?

I asked Jennifer about what leaders can do to avoid the talent cliff, or at least curb more employee losses. She explained that leaders need to provide psychological safety. They need to give employees space to honestly express ideas, and leaders need to be prepared to respond in a supportive manner.

“Psychological safety allows people in the workplace to be honest, to be truthful, to fully embrace who they are without judgment, which creates productivity and innovation,” Jennifer says. “When you open up the conversation, people feel valued … They feel like it’s safe to bring ideas to you because you don’t just shut them down.”

“I would encourage your listeners to think: How do you think about opening up that conversation so there is psychological safety and so that the business can move forward with the truth?”

The talent cliff is a threat to all businesses. But if you prioritize team needs, it will help you to retain valuable employees and amplify overall business growth.

I hope you enjoy this episode of #WorkTrends. And I hope it communicates that the key to a successful business strategy is valuing the people who are helping you to achieve it. You can learn more about this topic by connecting with our guest, Jennifer Thornton, on LinkedIn.