Long before anybody had heard of Covid-19, a workplace crisis was brewing: People were becoming overworked and overstressed. The pandemic has worsened the situation, but that doesn’t mean employers can’t make things better. Ethics and compliance consultant Lisa Schor Babin explores the prevalence of anxiety in the workforce and what concrete steps firms can take to improve the picture.
Before the pandemic, the mental health of our employees was only one of many corporate culture priorities. However, since then, employees’ mental health and how they show up at work have jumped to center stage. Our workforce is stressed, anxious and burned-out. Corporate leaders and gatekeepers, including ethics and compliance (E&C) professionals, who work with growing internal and external pressures on company values, are stressed, exhausted and burned-out.
Many companies are responding by improving mental health benefits coverage and access to expanded mental health resources, including those that are needed urgently to meet this exact moment. But there’s more to be done to rebuild and re-tool the work environment in the areas of physical and mental health, physical and psychological safety, diversity and inclusion, fairness, and respect to support our employees and motivate and energize them for the future of work.
Anxiety is almost as rampant as Covid
Global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25% in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the World Health Organization. The pandemic added or compounded stressors that workers, particularly those 40 and younger, were already coping with, such as less job and housing stability, more financial debt, lower earnings than previous generations and the ever-present pressures of social media.
Anxiety is showing up in all sorts of ways in the workplace. On top of shifting priorities and large-scale reckoning with work during the pandemic, anxiety and burnout are also major drivers of the Great Resignation. For those still in the workforce, facing a return to the office or even the discussion of a return to the office is a source of anxiety, even for those who are able to keep their full-time remote work status. Workplace activism is on the rise, as anxious employees are bucking pressures to stay silent amidst wrongdoing, ethical lapses, threats to workplace safety, inequity and unfairness, and a frenzied geo-political climate. It is also plausible that wrongdoing is not only a contributor to anxiety but also one of its outcomes.
Younger workers are attuned to their mental health
Millennial and Generation Z workers, who account for about half of all American workers, are more likely than previous generations to quit a job if it negatively impacts their mental health, and this was true even before the pandemic. One in two Millennials and three in four Gen-Z’ers had left a job for mental health reasons, both voluntarily and involuntarily, according to a 2019 study by the Harvard Business Review. These findings may speak to a generational shift in mental health awareness.
Millennials are often described as open-minded, self-expressive and sustainability conscious. They have a strong sensitivity toward their surroundings, and what goes on in the world affects them, which often manifests for Millennials as anxiety disorders or existential crises. With the world in a constant state of flux and chaos, the topsy-turvy economy and job market, climate worries and general worries about the future, it is no wonder that systemic anxiety is rearing its ugly head. Even the recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings and rampant gun violence that has reached public health crisis status in the U.S. are causing fear and uncertainty.
The 2022 Deloitte survey of over 23,000 people across 46 countries concludes that after two years of the pandemic and with new geopolitical and economic threats in 2022, the mental well-being of Millennials and Zoomers is under continued pressure. Nearly half of Zoomers and just under four in 10 Millennials said that they feel stressed or anxious all or most of the time. The survey also found that while Zoomers are more mindful of the importance of good mental health and despite increased attention to mental health in the workplace, with more organizations providing resources for employees, expectations that employers can mitigate stress, anxiety, and burnout are yet to be met. The survey concludes that stigma around asking for help remains an issue, though Zoomers are more likely to seek mental health support than prior generations.
What can companies do — and how can E&C lead the way?
The effect on companies is undeniable. As many as 200 million workdays are lost to mental health issues every year, the equivalent of nearly $17 billion in wasted productivity.
According to the World Economic Forum article, “Organizations that ignore or downplay these trends [growing mental health challenges] do so at their peril.” So how can business leaders shape the workplace to support mental health, as well as physical and psychological safety, and prepare for the future of work? Building mental health into the fabric of the corporate culture can destigmatize mental health issues and champion a healthier work-life balance. Forward-looking leaders engage with their teams about mental health and show their humanity by being vulnerable about their own challenges.
E&C professionals, in collaboration with other gatekeepers such as employee relations, human resources, compensation and benefits, communications, diversity, equity and inclusion and other leaders, can play an important role in integrating mental health into corporate culture and reducing stigma around seeking help. These leaders have lots of experience in building programs that put people at the center, listening to diverse voices, and communicating and collaborating across the business, which can translate into actionable progress in bringing mental health to the forefront and preparing the workplace for the future generations of employees.
We also want our leaders to be real. While they set standards for behavior through their words, they influence behavior by leading with their values and actions. Simply put, to instill and role model values; to ensure safe, fair, and ethical work environments; and to be a force for positive change around mental health in workplace culture, we need leaders who are the real deal — inside and out.
Leaders should continue to look for new ways to engage with employees, particularly challenging in the hybrid work environment. One way to effectively engage across a diverse and disparate workforce is to deputize compliance champions across the business. Adam Balfour recommends proactively and regularly asking employees about ethics and compliance issues to reinforce that speaking up is encouraged and safe and that managers see themselves as a speak-up channel.
Workplace bullying and harassment impact mental health, causing, among other things, stress, anxiety, low self-esteem, hopelessness and depression. Corporate leaders can have a positive effect on mental health by setting the tone at the top; role modeling truth, transparency, trust, respect, inclusiveness and safety; having a zero-tolerance for workplace bullying and harassment; and developing a cadre of managers who listen, communicate clearly, act ethically with respect and compassion, and think on their feet.
Like with a speak-up program that promotes a confidential, safe and easy way to report and address concerns, corporate leaders must provide a net of psychological and physical safety along with easy access to mental health resources to encourage employees to seek mental health assistance without stigma and with confidence that their ask will be heard, actioned and protected.
The Deloitte report referenced earlier recommends taking a broad, collaborative and long-term view to workforce well-being that includes: prioritizing mental health at work; understanding burnout and finding ways to prevent it; embedding flexibility into new ways of working; finding ways to make sure employees feel included—whether they are physically in the room or in a virtual workplace; placing empathy at the heart of leadership that will enable inclusion and an open environment to talk about mental health and well-being; and getting at the root causes of the high levels of stress and anxiety in their Millennial and Zoomer workforce.
Let’s rally together to make this new world of work safe, supportive, respectful, rewarding and meaningful for employees — wherever they are and however they work. Our employees have had a rough time these past few years, and they need the strength and compassion of our support, the wisdom of our experience and the benefit of our imagination to help them be hopeful for the future.