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How leaders can really boost productivity and performance

By Neil Hayward, WorkBuzz Customer Advisory Board Chair

When I joined the workforce 35 years ago mental health issues were not something workers casually brought up in the office. While most managers were generally supportive, you never knew when you would run into someone who still saw depression, anxiety and stress as your own failings and indicative of a lack of resilience. So, we tended to keep quiet.

How times have changed. These days, mindfulness apps and mental health support are par for the course – and some firms even offer free therapy and counselling sessions. Not only is this convenient, it’s intended to signal that these companies see psychological care as part and parcel of getting the most from their workers. A happy workforce is a more productive workforce, or so the saying goes.

Other employers are focusing on getting practical assistance to their employees – by designating workers as mental health first aiders, for example, or by encouraging people to attend workshops on mental fitness. The aim is to reframe the skills involved in managing such issues as positive attributes, thereby removing stigma.

These companies believe that, if their people are coming into the workplace with mental health issues, it will affect performance – and that there’s an enlightened self-interest in supporting them at the very least. They believe the biggest driver of sustainable productivity is the overall health of their organisations.

Indeed, the World Health Organisation recently estimated that 12 billion working days every year are lost to depression, anxiety and stress – at a cost of $12 trillion to global productivity. Another recent survey, the Edelman Trust Barometer, suggested that 72% of respondents in 13 countries trusted their employer to do what’s right on health-related concerns – while nearly 8 in 10 people expected their company’s CEO to set an example on healthy behaviour, for example by respecting work/life boundaries, and by openly talking about the importance of mental health.

Is there such thing as too much support?

Some commentators are arguing that these shifting attitudes are due to a generational change at work, as young people who are used to sharing their lives on social media begin to replace those who are older and more reticent. But the Edelman survey found that the figures were only marginally higher for those aged 34 and under than they were for the general workforce.

It seems that the employer is now expected to solve things for all of their people where other institutions – and even the family unit – do not, and that employees have very high trust levels that they will keep on doing this. But with that trust from workers come some high and growing expectations.

Given how much time has historically been lost to stress and other mental health issues – and that we didn’t measure this properly until recently – it is probably good news that employers have been trying to make it easier for workers to access treatment when they need it.

The risk here, though, is that the more employers insert themselves into the whole area of supporting mental health, the more they could open themselves up to claims they’re still falling short. How much support is enough, or even too much? And what if they start withdrawing this support?

Any negative effect will be multiplied many times over because, however we look at this, and despite unprecedented employer interventions since the pandemic, work remains a significant source of stress and unhappiness for many people.

Training programmes and mindfulness apps are never going to be enough to help someone who is stressed because they work for a toxic manager or have an unmanageable workload. If the problem is the workplace itself, a mental health first aider programme – however good – will never suffice.

Cutting support and increasing workloads is a double-blow

Organisations need to get down and dirty with what is really going on. They need to treat the cause – not just the symptoms.

According to a new poll by recruitment consultants Robert Walters, 60% of US workers are suffering from workplace stress – and nearly 50% said concerns about job stability were the biggest trigger. Despite a big increase in corporate spending on wellbeing initiatives since the start of the pandemic, 62% said their employers were still not doing enough to combat stress.

This will only get worse if the economy contracts. Some employers are already reversing promises made on hybrid working in the face of what they see as a drag on productivity, with the likes of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan leading the calls for a return to five days in the office.

And, if companies respond to falling revenues by cutting both staff and spending on mental health, the double-blow of increased workloads and reduced support could seriously undermine any progress made to date.

There is another way, however. If you want to see gains in performance and productivity, you need to start by making work a (psychologically) safer place.

How leaders can support psychological safety

Psychological safety is all about the absence of interpersonal fear. It means feeling safe to take interpersonal risks, speak up and disagree openly, and to surface concerns without fear of negative repercussions or pressure to sugar-coat bad news.

In this kind of environment it feels safe to share creative ideas without fear of personal judgement or stepping on toes, to admit to mistakes and to be vulnerable, and to speak truth unto power always.

But how do you create this safer workplace environment? It has to start at the top, with what leadership is and does. There are a few skills leaders can rapidly develop to foster greater psychological safety in their teams. These include:

  • Open dialogue skills, which allow leaders to explore disagreements and talk through tensions in a team.
  • Sponsorship or enabling others’ success ahead of one’s own.
  • Situational humility, which teaches leaders how to develop curiosity and a personal growth mindset for themselves and the people working for them.

To embed these skills you’ll need to go beyond one-off training programmes and invest in leadership development experiences that are emotional, sensory, and which create moments of realisation. This is all about the experience of learning and the vulnerability and personal introspection that goes along with it.

Leaders with these skills approach health and wellbeing differently.

They dispel stigma and actively promote wellbeing, and they put feedback from their people right at the heart of everything they do. They positively thrive on having feedback to respond to – because to them this is all part of the natural rhythm of being at work.

They put in place specific (not generalised) wellbeing programmes in support of their people, because they know exactly what’s needed on a targeted basis. And they change what’s wrong – whether that’s toxic management or unmanageable workplaces – in parallel, because they know that’s needed, too.

They treat the symptom and the causes of depression, anxiety and stress at work. You could say, they play it psychologically safe.

Learn more about psychological safety and how you can create and maintain safe spaces in the office here.

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