Under pressure: Why bosses are struggling more than ever

With the dark clouds of a global recession gathering and workers enveloped by a sense of dread and job insecurity, it’s easy to overlook the plight of those in the eye of the storm: the big bosses. And new data indicates that leaders around the globe are struggling like never before.

The latest Future Forum Pulse report — a survey of almost 11,000 workers across the U.S., Australia, France, Germany, Japan, and the U.K. published in October — found that executives’ sentiment and experience scores had sunk to record lows. Compared to a year ago, execs reported a 15% decline in the working environment, a 20% drop in work-life balance, and a 40% increase in work-related stress and anxiety.

The results shared by Future Forum, Slack’s research consortium on the future of work, were mirrored in workplace culture and recognition firm O.C. Tanner’s 2023 Global Culture Report, which involved 36,000 workers from 20 countries. “We found that leaders are 43% more likely to say that work is interfering with their ability to be happy in other areas of their lives,” said Robert Ordever, the organization’s European managing director. 

The saying that “a happy worker is a productive worker” is particularly relevant to those in a position of power. “When leaders don’t thrive, their employees, teams, and organizations won’t either,” added Ordever.

The full version of this article was first published on DigiDay’s future-of-work platform, WorkLife, in October 2022 – to read the complete piece, please click HERE.

Why it’s time to redefine ‘organisational resilience’ in the modern workplace

How should we define “resilience” in the business context of today?

In his latest book, best-selling author Bruce Daisley argues that the concept of resilience urgently needs an upgrade for the post-pandemic world.

Daisley, former vp of Twitter in EMEA, contends that resilience has negative connotations akin to grit and graft. He believes this should be replaced by the more well-rounded science of fortitude, the name of his new book.

But there are others who aren’t ready to sideline “resilience” as the appropriate definition for the kind of characteristics business leaders and employees need to show in order to thrive at work.

This article was first published on DigiDay’s future-of-work platform, WorkLife, in October 2022 – to read the complete piece, please click HERE.

WTF is Pleasanteeism?

You’ve heard of presenteeism, but a new and arguably even more troubling related term is now entering the business lexicon: pleasanteeism.

As businesses chisel their hybrid-working strategies, employees are being forced back into offices. And while many relish the opportunity to converse and collaborate with colleagues in person, for some, this cheery attitude belies underlying fears about returning to work, money troubles, and mental health woes. As a result, people are suffering in silence.

“Pleasanteeism is the sense that we always have to display our best self and show that we are OK regardless of whether we’re stressed, under too much pressure, or in need of support,” said Shaun Williams, CEO and founder of insurance firm Lime Global, who invented the term in August 2021. 

This article was first published on DigiDay’s future-of-work platform, WorkLife, in May 2022 – to continue reading please click HERE.

Badly managed return-to-office plans will fuel a ‘well-being crisis’ doctors warn

Doctors are lining up to warn U.S. and U.K. business leaders that they face a “well-being crisis” if they fail to improve the mental health support for employees returning to the office.

While people’s mental health has suffered in general over the past two years, the return to office is adding some new stressors to the mix. Employers must respond in kind, and actively listen to staff in order to provide the right support, or they’ll risk a backlash, say health experts.

A Slack-commissioned study of 1,000 knowledge workers in the U.K., launched in May which is Mental Health Awareness month, revealed that 73% of employees have experienced exhaustion in the last year. And almost half (49%) of respondents highlight associated costs with office working, such as travel and food, as stressors — at a time when 87% of British adults are reporting a rise in their cost of living, according to the Office for National Statistics.

This article was first published on DigiDay’s future-of-work platform, WorkLife, in May 2022 – to continue reading please click HERE.

Why occupational health is now a top priority

Ethics aside, supporting the physical and mental health of employees creates a win-win scenario in the post-pandemic workplace, but there are challenges to providing better support

The coronavirus crisis has squeezed the life out of so much we previously took for granted, at home and at work. Things have changed, irreversibly. Many people express both a heightened appreciation of life and respect for mortality. But how does this translate to occupational health? 

As organisations begin to coax their employees back to the workplace, the expectation that employers should support the mental and physical health of staff, particularly in a workplace setting, has been dialled up in the past year. 

To instil confidence in employees that a return to work is safe, many companies provide COVID-19 rapid lateral flow tests, promise better ventilation, rigorous cleaning programmes and gallons of hand sanitiser. But is it enough? Should businesses take more accountability for their workers’ health?

According to employee benefits provider Unum’s Value of Help study, published in December, 86 per cent of UK employers have changed their approach to staff health and wellbeing because of the coronavirus situation. 

Moreover, 95 per cent of the 350 employers surveyed revealed the pandemic has “impacted their need to make employees feel more protected”, says Glenn Thompson, chief distribution officer at Unum UK. “Whether it is from individuals, communities or organisations, 2020 has brought the value of help and support to the front of all our minds,” he adds.

Dr Robin Hart, co-founder of Companion, which offers mental health support tools, is pleased organisations are showing a greater willingness to look after staff. “A lack of focus in this area historically has seen an increase in lost revenue and diminished productivity,” he says. “Attitudes have had to change in a very reactive way due to the pandemic. In reality, it’s accelerated a process which would have played out anyway, eventually.”

Win-win scenario

Besides, supporting staff health and wellbeing creates a win-win scenario. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) data shows that in the 12 months to March 2020, when the first lockdown came into force, approximately 828,000 workers, the equivalent of 2,440 per 100,000 people, were affected by work-related stress, depression or anxiety. This absenteeism resulted in an estimated 17.9 million working days lost. In the previous year, the cost of workplace injury and ill health was calculated by HSE at £16.2 billion.

“Nobody’s health should be worse at the end of a shift than it was at the start,” says Dr Craig Jackson, professor of occupational health psychology at Birmingham City University. “If it is poorer, then there is something morally, ethically and legally wrong in that workplace.”

He believes there is a newfound respect for occupational health departments. “The excellent, proactive work undertaken by many professionals in preparing COVID-secure workplaces – assessing staff return to workplaces, COVID screening, testing, tracking and tracing – will lead to people realising occupational health is not just somewhere to go to when you are ill and unable to work,” he says.

Jackson acknowledges “supporting staff better than before does involve additional time and costs”, but argues such spending is a good investment. This is backed by research from Deloitte, published last year, that estimates for every £1 spent by employers on mental health interventions, they gain £5 back in business value.

“Not only is there a strong moral case for employers to look after staff health, but it makes good business sense, too,” agrees Oliver Harrison, chief executive of Koa Health, provider of mental health programmes. “Healthy workplaces attract the best talent. They also avoid the negative impact of illness on productivity, measured in staff turnover, absenteeism and presenteeism.”

Wellbeing challenges

From a legal standpoint, organisations have a statutory obligation to protect their staff from physical and mental harm. However, Elena Cooper, employment consultant at Discreet Law, reports that “a large number of employees are taking advantage of what they perceive to be their employer’s duties around mental health”.

She asks: “We know a caring and supportive employer is a good employer, but where do you draw the line between being a profit-making entity and a nanny state?” With the prospect of businesses having to afford time off to long-COVID sufferers in the coming months, if not years, it’s a pertinent question.

Ethical and legal debates aside, organisations face other pressing challenges to improve staff wellbeing. “One of the greatest barriers is ensuring healthcare support tends to the needs of all who work within a company,” says Bob Andrews, chief executive of private medical cover provider Benenden Health. 

“There is often a disconnect between what employees want to see from a health and wellbeing programme and what businesses offer. Also employees are not the same and therefore a one-size-fits-all approach is outdated and ineffective.” He advises using a range of tools, including mental health apps, as well as low-cost human management.

Luke Bullen, chief executive in the UK and Ireland at Gympass, which seeks to improve wellbeing through exercise classes, spots another issue. “One of the major challenges for a post-pandemic workforce is going to be the hybrid workplace,” he says. “How do employees ensure their wellbeing strategy works just as well for those working at their tables as though working in the office?” Empowering staff to “tailor the wellbeing offering” is critical, he suggests. 

Spurred by events of the last 12 months, occupational health will surge in importance in the coming years. “By 2025 I expect it to be available anywhere, anytime, thanks to digital advancement,” predicts Paul Shawcross, clinical lead of occupational health services at physiotherapy provider Connect Health. His company employs an artificial intelligence-chatbot as a method of referral that “triages the patient to the right support for them, 24 hours a day, seven days a week”.

Whether it is bot therapists, wellbeing apps or human professionals, employers need to prioritise occupational health in the post-pandemic workplace. Support, of any kind, is what staff truly want and need right now.

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Future of Healthcare report in March 2021

Compassion now vital as mental health crisis looms

Is there any wonder, in this eerie and uncertain period, which began abruptly and has destabilised social and economic structures, the mental health of people is collapsing? With millions across the country struggling to cope at the dawn of the coronavirus epoch, and prospects appearing bleak, what can organisations do to support employees?

Worrying stats abound. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), published on July 17, indicate almost two thirds (65 per cent) of Britons “feel worried about the future”. Mind, a mental health charity, found in late June that almost a quarter of adults (22 per cent) with no previous experience of mental health say it is now poor, or very poor.

Worse, the numbers are increasingly dispiriting. In the week ending July 5, for instance, 27 per cent of us thought that the current situation was “making my mental health worse”, according to the ONS. The following Sunday, on July 12, it had risen to 30 per cent. In the same timeframe the percentage of people “feeling stressed or anxious” jumped from 58 to 68 per cent, alarmingly.

A lockdown lasting over a third of 2020 has tested the emotional limits of everyone, and broken many. Isolation from friends and family, coupled with a dark cloud of doubt stretching to the horizon, have taken their toll. At the end of June, the Mental Health Foundation revealed that one in ten people in the UK “reported having had suicidal thoughts or feelings”.

Workplace wellbeing was critical before coronavirus

“The stressors for people during lockdown have been extensive,” says Dr Samuel Batstone, a consultant clinical neuropsychologist. “As such, you would expect a general increase in mental health issues and greater severity of symptoms.”

Mental health statistics in UK

Dr Batstone argues because our brain anatomy is “essentially the same” as it was thousands of years ago – when fight, flight or freeze responses were short term and typically concerned with physical threats – our minds are failing to deal with “more abstract threats, like a pandemic”.

He continues: “In the developed world we seldom face a physical threat. However, we have replaced this stressor with numerous other, more abstract threats such as deadlines, money, peer pressure, relationships, social media and 24-hour news channels. The problem is that our biological evolution – regarding brain structure and function – has not kept up with this social evolution.”

Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School, concurs that our brains have failed to keep pace with the helter-skelter of modern life.

“The issue of mental health was a big one in the workplace before the coronavirus outbreak,” he says, pointing to a Health and Safety Executive study that showed 57 per cent of working days lost between 2017 and 2018 were due to “stress, depression or anxiety”. More recently, in January, Deloitte calculated that poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45 billion each year.

Counting the cost of collapsing mental health

And then the exponential spread of coronavirus began. Businesses that previously realised the importance of employee wellbeing, and had established support systems, have been better placed to help employees with the coronavirus fallout. Others have improvised well, and technology has enabled frequent contact, despite mass home working.

“Good organisations have ensured that line managers have direct contact on a one-to-one basis with each of their direct reports, from shop floor to top floor,” Professor Cooper says.

Many companies have sought out digital solutions. For example, American startup Humu uses artificial intelligence to sift through employee surveys to discover behavioural aspects and improve their overall wellbeing, while Kooth Work and Rightsteps offer good – and inexpensive – options for businesses to assist the mental health of staff.

Dave Lewis, principal at employee health and wellbeing specialists Rightsteps, says: “We’ve seen a surge in businesses – particularly SMEs – turning to us during lockdown as they’ve sought urgent support for their employees. Getting access to scalable, affordable and effective wellbeing solutions sooner rather than later is key to preventing the escalation of issues and minimising the impact on the business.”

Renate Nyborg, general manager in Europe of meditation platform Headspace, agrees. “The pandemic has forced organisations to expand their staff support rapidly,” she says. “Since mid-March, we’ve seen a 400 per cent increase in requests from companies seeking support for their employees’ mental health.”

Organisations turn to digital solutions

While all employers have a duty of care to protect the health and safety of their employees, Lynne Connolly, global head of inclusion and diversity at investment company Standard Life Aberdeen, believes organisations should go above and beyond for their staff. “Irrespective of legal obligations, as an ethical employer we want to help colleagues deal with mental health issues and have a range of interventions and resources at hand to provide active support,” she says.

“These range from the traditional – such as having someone to talk to – through to an app that tests a user’s emotional wellbeing and takes them on a journey to help them take control of their emotions. That same app acts as a pathway to professional counselling.”

Indeed, Moneypenny data shows that it’s good to talk: the average length of a call increased by 22 per cent during lockdown. “We crave human contact,” suggests Joanna Swash, chief executive of the outsourced-communications company.

Chinwagging aside, she showed impressive innovation to keep team morale high at the start of the pandemic. “We quickly introduced new initiatives, such as online yoga, meditation and exercise classes, as well as virtual lunches – with food delivery vouchers sent to employees’ homes – and much more,” says Swash, hinting at an evolution of wellbeing perks.

Similarly, at global workforce communications platform SocialChorus, co-founder and chief strategy officer Nicole Alvino implemented “distancing days”. She explains: “We decided that one day a month would be a company holiday, for the rest of 2020.”

In the coming months – possibly years – with a global recession looming, Alvino believes “empathy needs to be the foundation” of an organisation’s support for employees. “And this doesn’t require a capital investment,” she says. “For companies who can allocate resources, access to counselling services, meditation programmes and physiotherapy are impactful investments in your people.”

This sentiment chimes with Nyborg of Headspace. “Getting the best out of a workforce is difficult if leaders don’t empathise with employees and strive to understand pressures they might be facing,” she adds. “Moving forward, employers need to manage with compassion, transparency, and flexibility.”

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Employee Experience report in July 2020