Workplace Wellness and Mental Health: The New Frontier

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A growing millennial workforce, technological advances in how we live and work and an increased awareness of mental health risk factors are forcing companies to re-evaluate their approach to employee wellness. But what are the greatest challenges facing employers today? And what opportunities are these creating for the businesses of tomorrow?

This year’s, World Mental Health Day, organised by the World Health Organisation, shone a fierce spotlight on the psychological state of the global workforce.

The numbers make for scary reading. One in seven experience mental health problems in the workplace (14.7%). Anxiety and depression are the most common mental disorders in the US and UK. Suicide – linked to mental distress – is the most common cause of death for men aged 20-49 in England and Wales, while approximately 1 in 5 adults in the US (43.8M) experience some degree of mental illness in any given year.

2018 also saw the release of a new report from the Global Wellness Institute that suggested the economic burden of an unwell, unproductive and – crucially – disengaged workforce is costing 10-15% of global economic output.

But the issue is far from simply absenteeism. The way we work is changing – and it’s having huge repercussions for our physical and mental wellbeing.

The evolution of workplace wellness

In spite of these challenges, the value of workplace wellness continues to rise at an unprecedented rate, swelling by 4.8% to a $48 billion-sized chunk of the $4.2 trillion global wellness industry.

The GWI – which tracks spending by employers on services such as screening assessments, counselling and wearable devices to serve a range of needs from exercise and healthy eating to addiction, depression and stress – identified workplace wellness as one of the sectors predicted to see the strongest future growth.

It’s an area that has become big business. In 2011, the World Economic Forum and Boston Consulting Group identified at least 120 organisations worldwide focusing on workplace wellness. The number has undoubtedly ballooned since then.

That’s largely due to necessity, believes Kim Johnson, Founder of Wellness London. “Two years ago HR teams wanted a wellness program because it was a nice thing to have,” she says. “Now companies are recognising workplace wellness is a serious issue that urgently needs their attention.”

Workplace Wellness and Mental Health: The New Frontier

Taking responsibility

Wellness London focuses on empowering employees to take control and responsibility for their wellbeing. Johnson’s team train employees to become their company’s wellness champion, equipped with skills such as “mental health first aid training”.

“We set up 1:1 clinics two times a month during work time, providing staff with an invaluable 30 minutes of ‘me time’ where they can see mindfulness specialists, nutritionists, even sleep therapists.”

By contrast, Cate Murden, the Founder of British startup PUSH Mind and Body, a corporate wellness company that helps people, teams and companies work better, believes companies have long been at fault for demanding too much from their staff and that change needs to come from the top down.

“The world has never moved at such pace,” says Murden, who worked in advertising for 15 years before being signed off for stress. “It’s flipping relentless and humans can’t keep up with company expectations. At 6am you roll over to hit snooze on your smartphone alarm and you’re immediately opening and answering work emails. It’s the greatest con of all time. Companies have managed to double our hours without giving us any more money and employees are taking the hit.”

Murden set up PUSH out of the mindset that nobody else should go through what she did, and she believes the onus is starting to shift with companies now having to show commitment to their employees’ wellbeing rather than the other way round.

“Companies will need to reevaluate their principles and purpose,” she says. “They’ll have to think how they can energise their people and make them engaged for work with initiatives such as unlimited holiday and four day weeks. It’s not about hours in the office. People should be judged on their output.”

PUSH’s methods are bearing fruit for HAVAS Media, where its provided a multilayered program covering mindfulness, nutrition and exercise and set up workshops to provide and encourage feedback. “In just two years we’ve brought their staff attrition levels down from 30% to 4.5%,” says Murden. “Based on ACAS costs for replacing team members it’s saved them £1.5 million.”

A global epidemic

Despite the considerable strides that have been made in the US and Europe, globally there remains an epidemic in work-related stress, injury, illness and disengagement.

According to a 2016 report from the GWI on the future of wellness at work, 18% of the workforce will be over 55 by 2030 while 77% work in part-time, temporary, “vulnerable” or unpaid jobs. We’re facing a future with an ageing workforce threatened by automation and innovation, a 24/7 “always on” culture that elevates stress and a scattered workforce at an increased risk of loneliness.

These issues are compounded by new GWI data that suggests less than 10% of the world’s 3.2 billion workers have access to any kind of workplace wellness program or service: 54% in North America, 25% in Europe, 5% in the Asia-Pacific and just 1% in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Positive Group, based in London – which focuses on psychological wellbeing, mental health and performance – is looking to address this issue by working with teachers in higher education around the world to “change the way organisations think, feel and behave”.

For MD Will Marien, whose company also works with leadership teams in corporate boardrooms, the objective is to be proactive and preventative rather than reactive. “Just buying a resilience program for your staff isn’t going to cut it,” he says. “That suggests the organisation is trying to get their pound of flesh out of you, to make you bulletproof to get more from you.”

Instead, The Positive Group excludes the word “resilience” from its work. Rather than simply giving people tools for when it all blows up in their face, “we aim to help organisations do something that can be put into the water at the top, which then filters down to the workforce.”

Core to their methods is what Marien calls “psychological education”. “It might sound a bit scary but at the root of it we’re teaching people about emotional literacy, emotional intelligence and leadership development,” he says.

“If you can understand how the brain works then you’re going to be a better leader, better at your job and create a more united, productive organisation.”

Workplace Wellness and Mental Health: The New Frontier

The New Work Manifesto

Better understanding of workplace wellness and methods to boost productivity have also been explored by Bruce Daisley, Twitter’s European VP. It led to the creation of The New Work Manifesto, a guide outlining eight ways companies could – or perhaps should – adapt to improve the working environment and engagement of its workforce.

The manifesto’s overriding message was that work should be a fun place to be, somewhere you can be yourself, empowered to make decisions, enabled to collaborate yet given the space to be creative.

Alfresco rather than “aldesco” lunch breaks should be the norm. And instead of the “first in, last out” culture, Daisley pointed to research that suggests sticking to no more than 40 hours of good work per week is the best way to “preserve creativity and imagination”.

It’s a sentiment echoed by the GWI’s senior research fellow Ophelia Yeung: “As we look to the future, conversations around wellness at work will no longer centre on mitigating work-related ills, but on enhancing motivation, commitment, creativity, flow and cognitive abilities.”

Coupled with advancements in innovation and automation, does that mean all employees can look forward to four day weeks, unlimited holiday and robots doing their menial jobs?

Perhaps. But whatever happens, as workplace wellness becomes more commonplace, creative and competitive, the traditional 9-5 should become a time in individuals’ lives where they look to thrive rather than merely survive.

5 future-proof tips for workplace wellness

Encourage an entrepreneurial mindset

With uncertainty about job security on the rise due to trends toward remote working and a freelance workforce, Will Marien of The Positive Group sees this as an opportunity for change and growth. “We encourage leaders to take an entrepreneurial mindset,” he says. “If you can reframe uncertainty and recognise change and challenges as potential opportunities you will be better equipped to adapt as an individual and organisation, now and in the future.”

Get mental health first aid training

Kim Johnson of Wellness London encourages employers to implement mindfulness tools at work, to help employees alleviate anxiety. Be Mindful Online is one online mindfulness course offered by the Mental Health Foundation. Research on the online course in 2013 found that for the 273 people that completed the course, there was, on average, a 58% reduction in anxiety levels.

Learn to normalise stress

Another key component of The Positive Group’s methods is to “normalise” stress and pressure at work and how it impacts thoughts, physiology and behaviour. “It’s a very protective measure,” says Marien, citing The Yerkes-Dodson Law on balancing pressure and performance. “Being stressed for a week or two isn’t a problem – it’s only once you’re there for a protracted time and can’t find a way out, that it becomes an issue.” Once you realise stress is normal you can teach employees how to utilise it to their advantage, he adds.

Survey your staff

“Employee feedback is crucial for improvements in your workplace wellness offering,” says Sophie Clyde-Smith, Careers Manager at Welltodo, who cites Rebel Kitchen as one company leading from the front. “It offers unlimited holiday and doesn’t have fixed working hours so its team which are on different time zones and chronotypes can work at their optimum level. “It should be personalised to each individual so you should regularly ask your staff what they want from their workplace wellness. Ultimately they’re the ones who will benefit from it.”

Create women-friendly workplaces

The Global Wellness Institute’s recent report also identified trends towards “true diversity and inclusion” that will produce more innovative, engaged and high-performing teams. “We see this as the wellbeing of ‘We’,” says GWI’s senior research fellow Ophelia Yeung. “Employers are starting to recognise that thriving is core to sustainable success and a thriving work culture is key to attracting and retaining talent.”

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