What The Future Of Work Means For Our Mental Health
The workplace has forever changed.
In March 2020, more than a third of the world population went into lockdown, and by the end of April 2020, 1.6 billion workers lived in danger of having their livelihoods destroyed.
A full return to “normal” is something that many have begun to realize is unlikely. Instead, we all must prepare for the “new normal.”
We have already seen an increase in remote work (with a peak of 62% of employed US adults working part or full time from the confines of their home), and a transition of (32%) of companies hiring contingent workers in place of full-time employees, as well as a shift in roles, responsibilities, and expectations alongside a steady incline in leveraging AI (Artificial Intelligence).
But that isn’t the only thing that has changed.
Covid-19 has put mental health front and center for organizations as the safety of employees becomes paramount to survival. New research is indicating that employees are putting in more hours than ever, experiencing burnout and exposure to added stressors such as finances or the inability to separate personal and professional commitments and roles. These shifts and changes are pushing employee well-being up the ladder of corporate priorities.
As a career coach, I became wildly curious to understand what all these changes mean for our future. When the dust settles, what will the workplace look like? I used my extra time at home to start researching and came across a brand new study by author and managing partner of Workplace Intelligence, Dan Schawbel, in partnership with Oracle… I was blown away by their findings. To start:
- 70% of people have had more stress and anxiety at work this year than any other previous year.
- 85% of people say their mental health issues at work negatively affect their home life
- 76% of people believe companies should be doing more to support the mental health of their workforce
Before we dive into how the future of work will impact our mental health, let’s take a look at what mental health actually is. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health is “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” In short, our mental health includes our emotional, psychological and social well-being in regards to how we think, feel and act. When mental health is suffering, other aspects of life such as relationships, physical health and daily functions are directly impacted.
Mental illness is the world’s leading cause of disability and is estimated to cost the global economy $16 trillion by 2030 as a result of lost earnings and the cost of health insurance. According to the study by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence, the Covid-19 pandemic has only added to this, with 78% of the global workforce reporting a negative impact on their mental health.
It’s clear we need to prioritize caring for ourselves, and this includes our mental health. So, what can employers do, and how can employees take better care of themselves? Here are three ways the future of work will directly impact mental health.
1. Employees in distress prefer support from technology, instead of human beings.
Mental illness has been a quiet epidemic that people keep behind closed doors, especially at work. As a career coach, I am more than upset when I hear someone expressing fears of being fired for being honest about their mental health and the impact their job has had on their well being. With 25% of Americans living in fear that they will lose their job due to the pandemic, it’s unlikely they will broach a topic they already fear will get them fired. No one wants to admit they are struggling if their job may already be on the line.
But the reality is, depression and anxiety are hitting all-time highs due to the pandemic. A JAMA Network study reviewed American’s mental state prior to and during Covid-19 and found depression symptom prevalence was more than 3-fold higher during the COVID-19 pandemic than before. Combining this fear of job loss with an already difficult topic to bring up, you can safely bet that employees aren’t going to set up meetings to discuss their mental health struggles at work.
The data is staggering: pre Covid-19, one in five Americans struggle with mental health and yet, 60% of those adults didn’t receive any medical support. Despite the prevalence, a “stigma” exists in preventing people from reaching out and getting the help they need. All this privacy and stigmatization is likely why 68% of people would prefer to talk to a robot over their manager about stress and anxiety at work and 80% of people are open to having a robot as a therapist or counselor.
Not only are employees more open to using technology to support their mental health, but they have also found that through technology (AI, in particular), their mental health at work has actually improved. Respondents in a recent study noted their mental health was supported by using AI as follows:
- To receive the information needed to do their job more effectively: 31%
- To automate tasks and decrease workload to prevent burnout: 27%
- To reduce stress by helping to prioritize tasks: 27%
While there are many benefits of disconnecting from technology for mental health, there are benefits to leaning on technology when it can support your overall well-being. It is up to employers to offer these technology benefits and for employees to use them to their advantage.
2. Employers need to place a business value on mental health
A generational shift in awareness of mental health is occurring. Half of millennials (born 1980-2000) and 75% of Gen Z’ers (born 2000-present), the two generations that make up the overwhelming majority of the workforce, have left roles in the past for mental health reasons. The main culprits for millennial and Gen Z’s stress and anxiety, according to a Deloitte study, included:
- Welfare for their families (45%)
- Long-term financial future (43%)
- Day-to-day finances (39%)
- Job and career prospects (41%)
With the majority of these reasons involving financial health, it’s no surprise mental health is rising during the wake of historically high job loss and payroll cuts.
It’s up to employers to take a vested interest in placing a value on their companies overall well being, especially when you consider the cost corporations incur (33% of an employees annual salary) for losing these employees each year. Because millennials and Gen Zs together account for the majority of the global workforce, their mental health issues present an enormous challenge for employers around the world. People are looking for a place where they will be supported, both in their career and in their overall wellness.
The past’s masculine business approach of putting revenue over employee well being has come to an end, and companies will continue to see turnover if they don’t adhere to employees’ mental health needs.
At the end of the day, what gets measured gets managed. In order for employers to truly implement and value employee mental health, there will need to be some form of tracking, as well as some value assigned to corporate well being.
We can look at how CSR (corporate social responsibility) became a mainstream staple in the business world as a playbook for how a similar structure can be created for employee wellness. It was clear that companies’ impact on the environment and their communities mattered, but it wasn’t until a push for CSR as a business sector was developed, that larger changes were actually recorded and implemented. In 2011, only 20% of S&P 500 companies published CSR reports, compared to the 81% that did so in 2015.
In the future, we can hope to see businesses taking a vested interest in their employees overall wellbeing. This will be beyond offering healthy snacks in the break room or gym memberships. Employers can consider:
- Incorporating anonymous polls of wellness and health to gauge employee overall well being at work.
- Offer adjusted health care benefits that incorporate mental health perks (therapy sessions or mindfulness trainings)
- Provide mental health days off. Along with PTO and sick leave, allocate a select number of days specifically for mental health.
3. Mental health benefits will become the norm.
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, 51% of employees surveyed by Oracle noted their companies have added new mental health services. These added employee perks are likely here to stay, as mental health benefits have been coined “America’s most competitive office perk”.
- So what can your company do? Offer unlimited time off, or at the least, unlimited sick days. Prior to Covid-19, 90% of employees admitted going to work while feeling sick. The reason being, they were afraid of blowing through their limited and precious sick days. Follow the lead of major businesses like Netflix and General Electric that have already offered unlimited time off in order to ensure employees feel safe and supported at work, particularly when they feel under the weather.
- Offer free access to online mental health services, access to mindset and wellness apps, such as Headspace, and counseling services are becoming normal benefits for employees. Companies like SoFi and Target added counseling sessions to their standard benefits in 2020, Adobe offers relationships support and care kits for pregnancy, and Unilever offers training for mindfulness and training managers on mental health in the workplace.
While the standard day in the office takes on a whole new look, one thing is for sure: prioritizing mental health is here to stay. Let’s not let it go back to being hidden.
As Glenn Close has been quoted, “What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation.”
Be the organization that creates a future for your employees where their mental health is a clear priority. Create a culture where anxiety and depression aren’t shameful but are supported and worked through. Be the future.