Dr Ben Searle, October 15 2021
This article by Alex McKinnon, titled “It’s OK to hate your workplace’s corporate wellness policies”, will resonate with a lot of people. It certainly did with me when I read it this morning.
Most corporate wellness programs fall short of the mark, and some do so by an absurd margin. I want to discuss why supporting employee wellbeing has to go further than mental health awareness-raising, and where it could focus instead.
Firstly, let’s deal with some elephants in the room. 2020 and 2021 have been tough on our mental health. We’ve all been through a ton of change, faced a lot of risk, and got cut off from many of our usual support structures. If you’re a parent of children, then you’ve likely also been isolating with kids. Many have been juggling this with working from home, two things that clash horribly — it’s a particularly difficult form of “role conflict”, a major contributor to stress. So there are a lot of employees whose mental health is particularly vulnerable, and who are heading towards burnout. And most employers aren’t doing enough.
Frankly, even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, most workplaces struggled to do much about mental health beyond awareness-raising, which can seem superficial. Yes, stigma is still a problem that discourages people from accessing mental health services, but it’s 2021. We just had World Mental Health day (Oct 10), which started in 1992. If you’re an adult, you should already be aware about mental health issues (although there’s always more to learn). And if you run an organisation, awareness-raising just isn’t enough.
McKinnon writes, “But many companies are choosing to give their workers cupcakes and yoga sessions rather than access to childcare, more flexible working arrangements or permanent employment.” The article then goes on to quote Professor Pat McGorry AO, a professor of Youth Mental Health at the University of Melbourne, saying, “Employers don’t know what to do, to be honest”.
Do employers really not know what to do? Then I’ll explain.
Employees don’t burn out due to a dearth of cupcakes and yoga, but due to excess demands and insufficient resources. You know, the things people face in the course of their work. And the best way to manage these work design factors (that’s some organisational psychology jargon)? It’s not complicated! Reduce demands. Increase resources. Repeat until employee mental health is good.
What demands should you reduce? Reduce workload so that you aren’t expecting more than someone can achieve in a reasonable time. Minimise bureaucratic hurdles. Do something about bullies, harassers, and ongoing interpersonal conflicts. Identify and resolve role conflicts.
Which resources should you increase? Offer people more support, and encourage them to support one another. Let them work flexibly. Develop their skills, then let them make more decisions independently. Provide more clarity about what’s important. Ask them what else they need.
None of this should surprise anyone, not even employers, and yet somehow it never seems to be what happens. When I first posted this article as a Twitter thread, someone replied giving an example of what organisations do far too often — offer something so lacking in effectiveness it’s almost worse than ignoring the problem:
“My workplace did a survey recently and the number 1 problem was workload.
On offer the following month was a half day course on managing your email.”
The issue is rarely diagnosing the factors impacting employee wellbeing. Yes, there are many advantages to conducting diagnostic surveys — it can tell you what changes to prioritise, or which divisions need help with which issues. But it’s rare that the core problems revealed by wellbeing surveys are entirely unexpected.
The real difficulty is getting organisations to recognise that managing employee mental health requires more than just superficial action, and that improvements in work design make a difference in a way that cupcakes don’t.