October 10 is World Mental Health Day. Mental health is also receiving increased attention in the world of work. That’s a good reason for the IBA Forum editorial team to conduct a dialogue with various experts about this topic. The first of these dialogues is with Nora Dietrich.
Why is occupational health an increasingly important topic today, and why are we seeing phenomena such as burnout, exhaustion and mental illnesses more and more often in the work environment?
Since at least the pandemic, this topic has become more visible because people have realized that health is the foundation of every aspect of human life. For the first time, all of us were sitting in the same boat. Suddenly there was a collective moment of stress in which everyone knew what he or she was talking about. That was a door-opener and the point at which organizations understood that we have to do more and develop regenerative organizational cultures. We can’t simply demand great work performance. Instead, we have to recharge employees’ batteries so that new ideas and creativity can be born. Part of that is mental health. When we look at our jobs, we can see some trends that influence it. For one thing, there’s a shortage of skilled workers. We know that today two thirds of all employees already clearly feel the burden, because there are not enough shoulders to carry the load. We are working more, with increased concentration, at a faster pace, but we’re getting much less support from our managers because they are also overworked themselves. Stress has increased overall, in the private sphere as well as at work, and absenteeism has increased along with it. But I also believe that we’re seeing these phenomena more often because they have become destigmatized and we can therefore talk about everything more openly. Mental health is no longer a taboo topic.
„Today employees are speaking much more openly about the resources they need to receive from their employer in order to stay healthy.“ Nora Dietrich
What does “mental health” actually mean, and what’s your personal definition of workplace well-being?
Mental health is about promoting health — that is, a condition of flourishing in which we can use all of our energy to be creative and set ourselves goals with a realistic, optimistic perspective on the world. If we’re talking about workplace mental health, other factors are also involved. It’s not only about how I feel as a private individual and how much energy I have when I go to work or whether my work is draining even more energy from me. It’s also, above all, about whether my work can give me structures, a design for my work and supportive relationships that recharge my health battery. If there are frequent conflicts in my team, on top of unclear goals, constant change and a heavy workload, all of these are factors that can lead to stress or the risk of burnout. What all of this means is that workplaces can preserve, promote or cost us our health, depending on how they are structured or how working together is organized. So it’s basically about the following questions: What do we need in order to do the best work we’re capable of while nonetheless staying healthy? What do we need within a team, while working together, and from the organization? In my opinion, that’s the concept of workplace well-being.
In times of New Work and hybrid work, has it become more important to strive for a work culture that keeps employees’ health in mind?
Health has always been important, but today it’s being demanded much more explicitly. The younger generations, not only the millennials but also Gen Z, are saying: I want an employer who is modern, people-oriented and health-conscious. This wish has also become stronger in the older generations because today we finally have opportunities to express it, thanks to de-stigmatization. As an employer, I always have to ask myself: Can I afford to ignore this need? Current studies show that between 60% and 80% of all employees would switch employers in order to have a job where more attention is paid to mental health. That should give us something to think about. It also includes managers, who are often carrying an even heavier burden than the employees. A healthy work culture is actually a question of the employer’s attractiveness. And when we talk about New Work, it’s mainly about doing work that is meaningful and in line with our strengths and focusing on people. Health is simply a very basic aspect of that. This was also the basic concept behind hybrid work — adapting my work to my life rather than my life to my work. Of course as an organization I can decide against hybrid work, but in that case I might lose out on a lot of potential on the talent market. During times when there’s a shortage of skilled workers, that’s not very advisable.
How should work culture be designed to make sure that people can work in ways that promote mental health? In this connection, you like to use the term “mental health culture”.
A culture of caring that takes individual needs into account may develop in a company. It’s all about providing teams and managers with skills or methods for promoting health. One good tool could be a “Manual of Me”, a book of instructions for myself that shows me what each individual needs in order to do his or her job as well as possible. Do I need my colleagues, or do I come up with the best ideas on my own? Sometimes it’s already the small points of collaboration in our daily work that can either cause stress or nourish us. We have to discover these points. And part of this process is realizing that I’m stressed or my team is stressed and knowing how I then deal with it. How do I conduct caring, empathetic conversations, and what options do I have as a manager if an employee says he or she can no longer go on and is facing imminent burnout? What do I do next? This is a skill that only a very few managers possess. Another question that needs to be answered is: How can I set an example myself? We know that only a few managers set an example of healthy work behaviour. In these situations, employees wonder: How can I take care of myself in my work if nobody is really providing a good example and careers appear to be being built on not doing so? It’s a question of how people work together and how they react when the job becomes stressful. It’s all about taking care of one another and understanding that mental health means, above all, that we perform at a high level because we’ve got a high level of well-being at the workplace. So well-being is the prerequisite for good performance and the basis of success.
Here you can go to Part 2 of the interview:
Nora Dietrich is a mental health expert, a keynote speaker and an organization designer. She advises teams and managers regarding the question “What do we need in order to do our work as well as possible and stay healthy while doing it?” She also works as a behavioural therapist for the Future Institute and advises organizations about strategy and the implementation of New Work. In the process she translates her behavioural therapy expertise to fit organizational settings. For further information, visit https://www.noradietrich.com/.
Cover photo: Nora Dietrich