Why The Future Of Work Prioritizes Mental Health

Here's how we can work together in a way that supports mental well-being and performance.

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Alexander Suhorucov/ Pexels
Alexander Suhorucov/ Pexels

At least once per month, I hear a leader say, “Our employees are so burned out, but I don’t know how to solve it. I am so burned out. But I’m worried that if we focus too much on mental health, people will stop working as hard, the work won’t get done, and our performance will drop.” 

The implicit belief here is that high performance means achieving business goals, and if we burn out our employees or ourselves along the way, so be it. It’s communicating the belief that people are replaceable. If our employees leave (which they will) because “they can’t handle it,” then they didn’t belong here. If this sounds harsh, it should. What does that mean when nearly everyone feels burned out one year after the pandemic? Consider the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on diverse employees. What does this mean for who will “succeed” in your workplace culture?

Why Overworking Sabotages High Performance and the Relationship Between Mental Health and Performance

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There is only a tenuous relationship between hours worked and performance. Research shows that our productivity begins to decrease as we work excessive numbers of hours. Overwork prevents leaders from retaining and fostering talent and leads to more inefficiencies and errors in work that can cause significant issues and project delays. Companies that have experimented with working less actually see higher performance. Yet, manager surveillance software usage spiked when the pandemic hit—knee-jerk reaction managers had in response to not seeing their employees in the office. 

Overwork leads to burnout. Prolonged, unsupported burnout will lead to absenteeism, presenteeism, and loss of talent. In other words, unsupported burnout will lead to lower performance. This is true of mental health broadly. Day-to-day workplace behaviors—how many hours we work, how we structure meetings, email behaviors, the amount of autonomy and support we give our teams—will impact our mental health. Talking about mental health will not suddenly create more mental health challenges, as many leaders fear. Normalizing talking about mental health will highlight the challenges that already exist so that teams can take steps to address these challenges and create a culture where people can work their best. This is how organizations can develop high-performing cultures for the long term.

Companies that support mental health—meaning, they talk about it, they work differently, they offer resources and normalize people using them, they train their leaders and managers to know how to support employees, and they hold people accountable for prioritizing mental health—see a 5:1 return on investment. Some of these companies might even (gasp) work fewer hours, but they are working better, smarter, more sustainably. In other words, they are more productive and higher performing.

Five Ways To Work That Support Mental Health And Lead To Better Performance

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Focus on sustainability.

If you are assuming overwork is a strategy to achieve high performance, then you are accepting that your employees are replaceable. Start thinking about the sustainability of work for the long term. DeAnne Aussem, Leadership Development & Well-Being Leader at PwC shared the importance of aligning mental health and well-being goals with other firm priorities. “As a Firm, we now have a shared understanding that if you prioritize a culture of flexibility, cultivate team dynamics that drive well-being habits and empower your people to embrace mental health on their own terms, not only will you likely have happier and more productive employees, but the business will ultimately be higher performing.” Mental health is not just an HR issue. Support for mental health needs to be strategic and woven into your business goals and practices.

Shift from effort metrics to outcome metrics.

Sometimes we overwork because the primary way we have to communicate our value is by the number of hours worked. Overwork then makes it more challenging to step back and examine if the work itself is contributing to the right goal. This lack of clarity then leads to even more work. Performance management metrics should be aligned with performance outcomes (including supporting mental health), not hours worked.

Proactively give people options for when, where, and how to work.

We all work differently. This is true of individuals with mental health conditions and symptoms; it’s true of parents juggling caregiving and work. Yet, we often try to establish single ways of working and waste people’s energy as they try to morph into that one model. Ask people what they need. Often, no-cost tweaks can help people thrive. Does someone need a two-hour block in the morning to help their child begin virtual school or an hour every Friday for therapy? Leaders need to start this conversation because often, people don’t feel comfortable asking for these small flexibilities for fear that others will think they aren’t dedicated or focused on work. When urgent issues arise, be transparent about why the urgency exists and give people autonomy to work flexibly to achieve the goal. Then reset to a more sustainable pace, rather than living in the land of “always urgent.”

Model and invite this conversation in teams.

Once you have reflected on these practices, you need to model them and name the connection to mental health: “I’ve found I need to block work time to juggle everything and make sure I’m working at a sustainable pace. Sometimes I forget to hold to this—please hold me accountable! How can I help you work your best?” We’ve found a simple “Working Styles” conversation can help start the conversation with questions like:

  • What do you need to work your best?
  • What doesn’t sit well with me?
  • What is important for me to prioritize outside of work?

Consider setting communication or scheduling norms as a team. This should include conversations about priority-setting and what are reasonable expectations. Doing this well will require reflection on why you’re overworking and how your behavior as a leader affects your teams. Teams value leaders who have this kind of self-awareness.

Help each other say no.

It’s one thing to set inclusive norms around work, it’s another to stick to them. Help each other.

“I noticed this meeting time suggestion is during your work time block. Maybe we could shift it?”

The same thing applies to vacation. A leader suggesting that their team takes time off is insufficient (and often falls flat on overworked employees). Help team members plan for vacation: reprioritize, identify someone who can provide “coverage” for urgent issues while they’re away, build in no-meeting or no-deadline hours before and after vacation. As a team, set a norm of asking, “what will we stop doing?” each time you add something new. Celebrate when someone takes a vacation, when they say no to preserve a boundary they set, or when they identify work that the team can stop doing and still successfully meet your goals.

For leaders who are reading this and thinking these changes are impossible, consider the Mindfulness Business Charter. Barclays, Addleshaw Goddard, and Pinsent Masons created the Charter as a partnership among law firms and financial services companies focused on implementing more sustainable work practices

Will these practices always work? No. But if you’re trying to implement these, it will make a positive difference for you personally and for your team. Work isn’t working. This is our chance. The pandemic has forced us to flex and adjust, be vulnerable, and talk about mental health. That’s a good thing. As we look forward to a “post-vaccine world,” use this as a moment to question your work practices. Overwork and burnout cultures are not new, but we do have a unique opportunity to address them. It’s time to start recognizing that overwork is not a high-performance strategy; supporting mental health is.

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