Mental health in the workplace 2010-2020: Reflections and predictions from my side of the equation

The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (21 – 25 September) is He Tirohanga Anamata; Reimagining Wellbeing Together, and we are pleased to share Dr Karen Jones’ reflections, experiences, and predictions on how “workplace wellbeing and mental health” has been reimagined over her decade-long career working as part of the Umbrella Wellbeing team.

Over the past ten years, I have worked as part of our Umbrella team supporting organisations to increase their people’s wellbeing and specifically their mental health. Over this time, I have seen a wide range of organisational responses to this topic from highly proactive to, shall we say, timid.  

Over the same period, I have seen the negative impact of workplace stress increase. Indeed, in New Zealand, recent data from our Umbrella Wellbeing Assessment shows that workplace stress can have serious consequences for the wellbeing of not only our people, but also our organisations (click here to find out more on this research). Globally, this stress has resulted for many in lower levels of wellbeing, productivity and mental health, and has increased people’s risk of experiencing a mental illness. This prompted the WHO in May 2019 to include “Burnout” in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). “Burnout” was defined as a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. That is, it elevates workplace stress to an occupational hazard.

However, over my 10 years, I have also experienced a positive shift in the way organisations think about, and put into action, initiatives aimed to reduce and mitigate workplace stress and increase people’s wellbeing. 

I was reflecting just last week that, as recently as two years ago, talking about emotions in the workplace, especially in a group setting, would not have been a discussion many would have felt comfortable with, certainly not welcomed, nor even had the opportunity to have. And, while being comfortable is not the green light criteria to having such discussions, the growing awareness and more deliberate actions by workplaces to put wellbeing on their agenda is beginning to provide the positive momentum and opportunity for these discussions to happen. 

Developing new roles such as Chief Wellbeing Officer and planning for new and improved organisation-wide wellbeing initiatives are just some of the ways I am seeing many organisations begin to live and breathe their commitment to their people’s wellbeing. No longer a tick-box exercise but good business practice! 

The evidence from decades of research that “people first” in the workplace results in higher levels of wellbeing – and consequently higher performance – is finally being listened to by many more than just the “converts” and the researchers. 

Additionally, our COVID-19 experience has provided an extra impetus not only to have wellbeing strategies in place, but also a need and desire to quickly and permanently embrace and elevate wellbeing to priority Level 4 (that’s top priority, if we go by COVID standards). 

The message of “put you, your family and colleagues first” and what that looks like at work resounded loudly and with more clarity than ever before. This message, but more importantly the actions that supported it, appeared to have increased people’s sense of autonomy and permission to look after themselves and those close to them. To be heard (and feel that you’re being heard), to feel validated and know you are not alone, in a more open and safe way than before, helped reduce the likelihood of stigma and discrimination. People also reported that having their workplace come to the party at this time went a long way to alleviating their stress overall, whether workplace-related or not. As a result, people have told me that their commitment, loyalty, and trust towards their colleagues, leaders and workplace have strengthened. 

So, my predictions and hopes for the 2020-2030 decade? 

 I am optimistic that: 

  • The question, “What do we need to do to support our people?” will be asked at every Board table. “Our people” includes the Board, CEO, senior leadership team, leaders, general staff, stakeholders, internal and external customers, and also our families and communities.  It is a cliché, but it is true that “organisations are not separate from the people – they are the people”, a lesson COVID-19 has shown us as never before. 
  • Chief Wellbeing Officer – that all organisations will have this role at that Board table.
  • Measures of an organisation’s wellbeing status – such as the Umbrella Wellbeing Assessment – will be mandatory and reported in Annual Reports.
  • The KPIs of leaders at all levels will include wellbeing, with appropriate measures, time allocation in role etc, supporting these.
  • Wellbeing success and financial success will be given equal importance by investors.

For me, this shift over the years, and more recently, has provided me with a renewed sense of purpose and belief that this work is a priority, is important, has an impact, and is one more way that we all can and are making a difference. This is a lesson we continue to learn and one that COVID-19 elevated; a lesson I believe we will take forward with an energy and commitment like never before!

To take these lessons forward, and to better understand the state of wellbeing in New Zealand workplaces, our Umbrella team has analysed findings from over 3000 employees who participated in our Wellbeing Assessment over the last two years. We are excited to share these findings with you during Mental Health Awareness Week (21 – 25 September). We are hosting a limited number of free online sessions with our CEO and clinical psychologists and we welcome leaders to join us for these discussions, to learn from our research insights, and to engage in Q&A about what we can each be doing to support the wellbeing of our people and our organisations. For more information and to register, click here. 

Author: Karen