A participant in one of our workshops told us recently, “It’s really hard to work on my wellbeing when I don’t have enough time in the day to get all my work done.” Herein lies the dilemma for many workplaces…

Mental health has always been a hot topic in the workplace, gaining traction as we navigate the after-effects of a pandemic. This has led to an urgent call to address the following questions: What role should organisations play in supporting employee mental health? Where does the responsibility lie between the individual and the organisation? And how much burden should an organisation carry regarding the care extended to people and teams in the workplace? 

In reality, most of the time, the answer is “both” and “it depends”. When we partner with organisations at Umbrella, we usually work at the strategic level (“How can the organisation better support their people?”) as well as the individual level (“How can the individual better support themselves?”). Both are important pieces of the puzzle that allow employees and senior leaders to meet halfway.

An important caveat to this, of course, is that, sometimes, the problem clearly sits with the organisation (take excruciatingly high workload, for example, or high incidences of bullying and harassment among management staff). In these cases, it is unsafe to place the burden of responsibility for wellbeing on an individual who is on the receiving end of anti-wellbeing practices.

The organisation’s side of the equation

There are many reasons why supporting employee mental health is a worthwhile investment, beyond legal compliance and “doing the right thing”.

In the Aotearoa New Zealand context, nearly half of New Zealanders will meet the criteria of a mental health diagnosis at some stage in their lives. Statistics New Zealand found that 1 in 5 people reported feeling often or always stressed because of work. According to recent findings from our Umbrella Wellbeing Assessment, up to 40% of people in a given organisation may be actively experiencing some form of mild to serious psychological distress.

Additionally, growing evidence shows that the cost of poor mental health and wellbeing goes far beyond the individual. The Business Workplace Wellness Report New Zealand 2021 found that Aotearoa New Zealand lost 7.3 million working days due to work absence. Furthermore, the cost of absence to the economy was $1.85 billion, with key drivers behind high absence being wellbeing issues and stress, which affect injuries suffered, productivity, job satisfaction, engagement, connectedness and loyalty to an organisation, and more. 

Of course, “life happens”, and the organisation may not be responsible for stressors taking place outside of the workplace (e.g., family conflict). Organisations are, however, responsible for ensuring that any psychological harm does not stem from work, and are likely to reap positive organisational outcomes from doing so.

This involves understanding, identifying, eliminating and/or mitigating all psychosocial risk factors that are present in a workplace – including things like bullying, high workload, or lack of control. For more on psychosocial risks, read our thinking here.

What might good wellbeing practices look like from an organisational perspective? 

In response to the rising burdens surrounding employee mental health, many organisations have begun to introduce mental health programmes, initiatives, and resources to go beyond the bare minimum.

Current thinking suggests that a comprehensive workplace strategy will involve the following: 1) protecting mental health by addressing work-related risk factors for mental health and wellbeing, 2) promoting mental health by focusing on and enhancing positive aspects of work as well as reinforcing employee strengths, and 3) addressing mental health concerns and offering proactive support for employee mental health, regardless of the underlying causes for their distress. 

Organisations, governments, and policymakers alike are recognising that each play a vital role in sustaining and enhancing mental health and wellbeing. This is the “meeting halfway” part of what we believe is a joint responsibility model.

The employee’s side of the equation

Life can be challenging, to say the least. Having to juggle the push and pull of wearing different hats, as we navigate different commitments and responsibilities can feel like a balancing act: being a partner, a student, a parent, a son/daughter, a sibling, a friend, or a member of the community … there are so many challenges employees could be facing in their roles both in and outside of work.  It can also be difficult to “put our wellbeing first” at work if it feels as though all the cards are stacked against us – when workloads are high, when we have no time in the day to practise healthy habits, or when we don’t feel cared for by the people we work with.

When we are at work, we are responsible for showing up as our best selves (so long as our work environment is enabling and empowering us to do so). Being our “best selves” does not always mean that we are blindingly positive, or that we do not have times of struggle – rather, that we have the tools needed to look after our side of the “wellbeing” equation.

Some of these tools may include: 

  • taking regular breaks, including having time to do small things for yourself to rest, recover, and recharge 
  • incorporating more movement into the day
  • eating and sleeping well
  • actively shifting priorities depending on our needs
  • strengthening relationships in and outside of work
  • practising authentic pride and celebrating each win, big and small, with those around you. 

There are many domains of hauora in which we can explore whether the balance is mana-enhancing, sustainable, or might need a few changes. 

Engaging in self-reflection is integral to this process, asking questions like “How do I feel, really?” and “What is the most helpful thing for me do right now to get myself to a better place?”. For our workshop participant that we met at the start of this article, for example, she came to accept that her workload is ultimately set by her manager, but reflected on the fact that she has freedom during the day to take micro-breaks when she needs to – and to structure her tasks to match her energy levels during the day. This means she is more likely to tackle cognitively heavy review work in the morning (with regular breaks to stand up and stretch), and schedule her team catch-ups for the afternoon – leaving her less exhausted when the day ends. 

As it is with our workshop attendee, self-reflection is associated with many positive outcomes according to research: it improves performance by allowing people to learn and take ownership from their past experiences, and feel more confident with achieving their goals. When it comes to managing wellbeing, it also allows us to reframe our situations and recover from work stress, helps us to be helpful to others and facilitates self-awareness and development, especially for those in leadership roles. 

It is also worth noting that self-reflection is especially effective when supported and instigated by an organisational leader, which may explain why good leadership plays such a big role in our wellbeing. Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) are another example of organisational support that, when done well, facilitates individual reflection and wellbeing.

This again highlights that individual wellbeing work can only really happen in a supportive workplace culture where the organisation is already managing psychosocial risks. Each party must meet each other in the middle to do the best they can to show up for one another.

For our Umbrella Wellbeing Assessment, the joint responsibility model is put front and centre. By giving feedback and resources to the organisation and individually to each person that completes it, workplaces are able to work collaboratively in utilising these learnings, self-reflect, and create an action plan that includes individual and organisational action. 

And for those employees who attend our workshops, our team is fully focused on equipping them with tools to support their personal wellbeing, while working in tandem at a strategic level with leaders to ensure that wellbeing risk is minimised in the workplace.

Aroha mai, aroha atu. 

Love received demands love returned.

In any relationship, reciprocity – mutual care, respect, growth, and responsibility – is fundamental for it to be happy and healthy, and the workplace is no exception to this.