The value of the workplace wellness industry is a staggering $53 billion worldwide today, projected to grow to $96 billion by 2030 with better preventative health practices.
Some of these efforts have important goals and can be worth a significant investment if they can deliver on their promises. Most evidently, reducing employee smoking, weight, alcohol consumption, blood pressure and blood sugar levels by any means available, if successful, will result in significantly reduced absenteeism and healthcare costs for the company. “If successful” is key here. Behavior change is notoriously difficult to achieve.
Things get a little murkier when it comes to programs to promote mental health and reduce or prevent stress and burnout. Some serious questions are surfacing and need to be answered.
What is mental health anyway? Can workplace programs improve this? And what actually is burnout? Can a Chief Wellness Officer prevent this? Is it possible that programs advertised as promoting mental health and preventing burnout are doing more harm than good?
What is mental health?
The simplest and perhaps best definition of mental health is attributed to Sigmund Freud – mental health is the “ability to love and to work”. The ability to love and work implies the absence of severe psychological stress. The ability to love involves the capacity for meaningful human connection and commitment, a set of values, and the maturity to honor them. The ability to work means that a person can pursue a work or career path that they find satisfying or meaningful, can focus at work, and mobilize the cognitive, physical, and emotional resources necessary for their performance. But nobody lives, loves or works in a vacuum. The ability to work does not only depend on the individual. There must be an environment that allows them to work by providing the structure and support they need.
For example, a trained trauma nurse can make a vital contribution to a disaster—an earthquake, a fire, or a crime scene. But they can only sustain this level of work for a few hours, maybe a day or two at most. Fatigue is inevitable, defenses against the effects of trauma crumble, and the sustained adrenaline rush collapses. The trauma nurse is usually supported by the structures of the hospital and emergency department where she works, where there are support staff, team members, supervisors, equipment, shift limitations, etc. – practices, people and policies that enable the nurse to work effectively across longer periods.
Mental health is also the absence of serious and disabling mental illness. Businesses must help their employees avoid or treat serious mental illness by providing them with the intervention services they need, reasonable and flexible vacation policies, and premium health insurance coverage. Enormous problems remain in meeting the promise of parity in mental health care, but these questions are beyond the scope of this article. And they’re not generally the goal of wellness programs.
What is burnout?
Burnout is not a psychiatric diagnosis, although the World Health Organization gave it “syndrome” status in 2019. It is not a medical term, but arose from observations made by social and organizational psychologists. dr Christina Maslach, social psychologist and prominent researcher in the field, defines burnout as a state of “overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from work, and a sense of ineffectiveness and underachievement.”
According to researchers, burnout is the result of a three-part sequence: (1) work stress due to demands that exceed individual resources, leading to (2) exhaustion and anxiety, leading to (3) attitudinal changes such as cynicism to cope.
How can a wellness program prevent burnout?
To have a positive impact, an intervention program would need to radically change at least one of the three parts in the order above. Most wellness programs that purport to increase employee satisfaction or reduce burnout focus on the second step – the individual’s response of fatigue and anxiety. Offer employees tools to meditate, places to play, or even flextime. Set up peer support groups and affinity groups.
This can be structurally and ethically wrong. The first burnout condition, where the demands of the workplace exceed the individual’s resources, needs to be addressed first. There are still too many cases of artificial emergencies, young lawyers expected to work 16-hour days to show their commitment, teachers bringing their own crayons and toilet paper to work, and staff at the… healthcare that go beyond their capabilities.
Employers should do everything possible to check the requirements they make of employees. Look at meetings, deadlines, urgent expectations that aren’t really urgent. Eliminate what can be eliminated and add flexibility wherever possible. Continue to examine the balance between work demands and human capacity and adjust accordingly.
Beyond the balance between demands and personal resources are key elements that create mental health in the workplace
1. A feeling of being heard.
2. A meaningful say in the business where relevant (to give the employee a sense of agency).
3. Sense and purpose.
4. A work life that is compatible with a rich personal life. In practice, this means getting home in time to spend time with your young children before they go to bed.
Installing a chief wellness officer at a hospital or law firm is a meaningless investment unless they have the power to tell executives that young workers need to be able to return to their families at a reasonable time — and get that message across.
Anything an employer can do to improve employees’ experiences of meaning, purpose and agency will shift the balance of demand and resources in a positive direction.
In a hospital, ask transportation companies what they think about improving patient transportation. At a law firm, ask junior associates what they think about making their workloads and schedules bearable. Too often it is the manager who is asked about procedures rather than the people actually doing the day-to-day operations. And, of course, follow the suggestions and guidance of frontline staff whenever possible. And explain why you can’t, if that’s the case.
A must-read by organizational psychologist Peter Lazes and community psychoanalyst Marie Rudden, From the Ground Up: How Frontline Workers Can Save America’s Health Care Systemmakes an intriguing and compelling argument that the only effective way to improve organizational operations is to listen to frontline workers and let them lead the way in planning a more effective and efficient course.
While Lazes and Rudden’s research focuses on organizational change rather than individual employee satisfaction, retention, or burnout, their focus goes straight to the heart of the cure. No amount of feel-good equipment or well-meaning wellness officers will reduce employee burnout and increase effectiveness and retention when the systems they work in are foolish, archaic, ineffective, brutal, or inhuman.