How to change workplace cultures that lead to mental health issues?

How to change workplace cultures that lead to mental health issues?

I’ve been addressing mental health in the workplace for a while, but one cannot talk about burnout (or other issues) if one doesn’t talk about what leads to it…

A lot of my articles focus on the individual and knowing oneself, which I continue to believe is of utmost importance. But is undeniable that certain environments create a burnout culture and are not favourable to employees’ wellbeing.

So hang in there for a long read, as I dive into what creates this environment and possible ways to remedy it.

Burnout is an extreme state of stress in which the person is mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted. The result of constant exposure to stress meaning you are no longer able to cope. In a way, it’s a sort of nervous breakdown from which your only way back is to take a break. For the most common symptoms of burnout see here.

Burnout has been on the rise with more and more employees suffering, to the point that the WHO has predicted a global pandemic within the next decade. People are working harder than ever before, competition is stiff and the job market has been precarious to say the least.

So beyond our own personalities and resilience, what creates this toxic environment in which people end up so run down?

  1. The “always-on” culture. Technology is great, but at times we are slaves to our phones. Work phones have created an expectation for employees to be available at all times: day, night or weekend. To see emails on the go, to not have an excuse for not responding, to the extent where it’s become “normal” to be readily available. I’ve even read job descriptions or been told in interviews that this the expectation.
  2. The competitive landscape. The job market is difficult: an increasing number of people (if not the majority) now complete higher education, with some people even having 2 Masters’ degrees. Out of university, people complete several internships before being hired into an entry level position. In addition, due to people having difficulty finding jobs, the qualified or those with mid-level experience are competing with the highly/over qualified with several more years experience. This means that once in their jobs people work harder than ever to prove themselves.
  3. The “go-beyond” mentality. Due to the competitive landscape, employees feel the need to go above and beyond to secure their spot, additional responsibility, or a promotion. This means regularly working over time, taking on more projects, and being “busy” becoming a badge of honour.
  4. Getting used to high standards. If you are a hard worker and are going down the “go-beyond” path, there is no doubt that others will use that to their advantage. Of course it is beneficial when employees are performing above average, delivering results in their “spare time” (so to say) without asking for more. But the more you deliver to high standards, the more this will become expected of you, which is ultimately unsustainable.
  5. Too large workload. Probably the most common cause of burnout: employees get overloaded with volumes of work they cannot do single-handedly and yet try to take it all on. As they try to do everything, they end up completely overwhelmed and working ridiculous hours to try and get through all of it. Do you see a pattern emerging?
  6. Lack of recognition. This may not be considered a traditional cause of burnout, but put all of the above points together, and think about how you would feel if no one ever thanked you for that. Wouldn’t you be mad? Upset? Or just plain exhausted? The harder people work, the more they are giving up of themselves. It’s only normal for them to want their investment to be recognized. But when employees continue to give with no return, ultimately they will be worn out.

So what should companies be doing to help protect their employees?

  1. Move away from “always-on”. If employees are given work phones and to some extent are expected to be responsive, do not encourage them to respond at night or during weekends. Enforce boundaries and make sure its known they will not be thought less of or slighted, for keeping work at work. Encourage productivity during work hours and incite employees to enjoy their down time. Ultimately it makes them better at their job.
  2. Where possible, give people a chance. For example give someone with fewer qualifications but high motivation an opportunity. Or give someone a job before they’ve done 5 internships. Do not ask people to jump through hoops before even asking them to interview. Of course rules must apply, but the more people feel compelled to outdo themselves to get a job, the more they will carry this behaviour on into their work life.
  3. Do not make”busy” positive. Allow people enough time to get their work done (i.e. minimize meetings, phone calls etc.) and encourage better productivity. Help employees learn how to manage their time and increase their output without having to work 60h weeks.
  4. Set realistic expectations so people don’t have to break their necks to meet them. Of course it is important to maintain standards and quality in work. And mediocrity should not be acceptable. But employees should also know when enough is enough, have a good reference to go by and all be held accountable to the same standards.
  5. Manage resources properly. Perhaps this requires hiring a person specifically for resource management. It’s definitely challenging to have the bigger picture of what everyone is working on, how much time it’s taking, deadlines, deliverables etc., but it is necessary to ensure people don’t end up being overloaded. Check that everyone has the right amount of work to do and regularly see if everything’s going according to plan. If someone is struggling, there should be fail safe mechanisms in place to support or offload them.
  6. Show gratitude. Recognition comes in many different shapes and forms. It’s not necessarily a “thank you”, a pat on the back, a promotion or a pay rise. Sometimes it can be publicly congratulating someone for their work, or taking the time to thank them for the effort invested into a specific project. Or it could be assigning that person an exciting new project they will love. It could even be giving that person a day off… Take time to recognize how and when employees are showing their dedication, so they feel valued. If they do, they are more likely to continue doing so of their own free will.

Changing work cultures that lead to burnout is not an easy process. There are many factors to be taken into account, and it will take time. But increasingly companies are waking up to this issue and starting to think about measures they can take to remedy it. Things are looking hopeful for the future!

* For the purpose of simplicity in this article, only burnout was covered as opposed to other mental health issues. This is not to say that negative work environments do not cause other mental health problems for employees. 

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Currently working in marketing and comms in Amsterdam. Passionate about all things digital, writing, dancing, travelling and much more. Mental health blogger and advocate.

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