1 in 5 people think their employer only cares about their mental health “a little or not at all” 

Australian Psychological Society

New research from the Australian Psychological Society and Curtin University highlights important insights into the future of work and shares solutions to build more mental resilience in the Australian workforce.

New APS research, led by the APS College of Organisational Psychologists and Curtin University, has found that only 52% of employers align the employee experience with wellbeing at work.

The research, based on insights from over 2200+ diverse respondents, also found that around 20% of respondents felt their employer cared little or not at all, about their wellbeing.

“When we think about the future of work, people often think about AI or skills training, but the future of work is also about designing and maintaining sustainable workloads and protecting employees’ wellbeing,” says Dr Zena Burgess, CEO of the Australian Psychological Society (APS).

Work is only going to become more complex, and even though technology might streamline processes and take away some mundane elements of work, there is a short-term need to respond to Australia’s soaring burnout rates, which are above global averages.

“eEmployees can only maintain hyper-productive work practices for so long, because they lead to stress, feeling overwhelmed and burnout.

If employees burn out, it can take weeks or sometimes months for them to recover,” says Burgess.

“It’s like trying to construct a building on a fault line: it might remain standing for a period of time, but the second you encounter shaky ground, the whole thing comes tumbling down.”

Employees’ expectations around wellbeing have shifted post COVID-19, says Hayden Fricke, Chair of the APS College of Organisational Psychologists and Managing Director of Steople.

“People have had time to reflect on life and what they want, and one of the things they want is for their boss to care for their wellbeing and demonstrate an understanding of their personal needs,” says Fricke.

“Wellbeing has gone from a nice-to-have to a must-have.”

Helping leaders embrace wellbeing

The APS report found that while 78% of leaders perceive themselves to be adequately preparing employees for the future of work (e.g. embracing new technology and work methods), only 53% of employees agreed with this.

“This statistic isn’t just about leaders, but the systems that are set up in organisations,” says Fricke.

“Leaders are very good at helping [employees] cope with current demands, so the issue is more about a lack of ability to anticipate the future,” he says.

It was promising, however, to see that 80% of respondents reported having a boss who they considered accessible, supportive, flexible and open to suggestions for improvements. But it’s critical that organisations coach the remaining 20% to lead with wellbeing front of mind.

To do this, Fricke suggests adopting a performance and wellbeing mindset.

“Up until recently, people have thought of it as performance or wellbeing, but it’s not one or the other. You have to lead in an integrated way.”

To do this, leaders need to facilitate purpose and direction, he says.

“We know that if you give someone clarity in the direction they’re taking, not only does that increase performance, it also increases wellbeing.”

This is the only way to drive performance in a sustainable way, says Burgess.

“We need to consider is the leadership behaviours that we are rewarding. Are we only celebrating leaders when they meet their KPIs, for example, and paying no attention to how they got there – which could have been by placing pressure on their team?

“We need to remember that what gets rewarded gets repeated,” says Burgess. “So why not reward the leaders who have helped their teams to meet business goals in a sustainable manner?”

Fricke believes we’d benefit from this not only from an organisational point of view, but also a societal one.

“We have KPIs around economic outcomes. But some of the Scandinavian countries that have enhanced wellbeing have [national] measures of wellbeing and happiness – organisations should learn from that.”

Striking the right balance

The challenge a lot of employers face is that when trying to drive up engagement, they can inadvertently impact wellbeing.

“We often see pressure placed on leaders to increase output and therefore, as a result, they place more pressure on their teams, perhaps demanding late nights or increased responsibilities,” says Burgess. “Instead, we need to think about how we can equip leaders with the skills to coach their teams to work in more streamlined ways – and resource them appropriately.”

Fricke agrees, saying, “After the GFC, there was a big drive for productivity. Leaders were told to hold people accountable and keep people accountable. What you saw from this was more bullying, harassment and many other claims that went through the roof as a result of that.”

He says workplaces then introduced a lot of Band-Aid solutions: free food, fitness classes, massages, and other surface-level benefits.

“But that’s not dealing with the root cause of the problem,” says Fricke. “The problem was that leaders weren’t trained in how to hold people accountable and support them at the same time.

“If you drive up engagement without wellbeing, you end up with burnout. But if you’ve got someone who’s wellbeing is taken care of, but they’re not engaged, you’ve got no performance. You need a mixture of both.”

Giving people choice matters

The APS research found that employees who had the option to work from home reported higher mean levels of job satisfaction and psychological safety, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no place for the physical workplace.

“Our research shows that people don’t need to work from home five days per week, but to feel more psychologically safe, trusting, and well, they need to feel like they have a choice,” says Fricke.

In instances where employers feel they have a good reason to prescribe an approach, it’s important that the end goal is clear to both leadership and employees, says Burgess.

“As an employer, think about what you want to gain by having people back in the physical workspace. Is it for collaboration? Is it for social reasons? Is it to strategise? Whatever the reason, it’s important that you explain the ‘why’ to your people. Get their buy-in so they become active participants in this new culture that you’re trying to create, rather than feeling they have something being imposed upon them.”

Fricke agrees, highlighting the importance of co-creating work approaches alongside employees.

“It’s important to practise consultative leadership, which is different to democratic leadership. You share your goals with [your team] and then get everyone’s input. You don’t get 100% agreement, but then you can go back and say, “We’ve listened to you and based on what you’ve told us, this is what we’re going to do”. But sadly, leaders usually either don’t do anything or they mandate things without having a discussion.”

Taking a teams-based approach

Interestingly, APS found that organisations with less than nine employees scored higher on wellbeing, satisfaction and psychological safety at work.

Fricke and his co-researchers believe this is helpful information for employers when thinking about how to embed change in their organisations.

“One benefit [of working with a small team] is less bureaucracy,” he says. “Everyone is clear on how they contribute to the bottom-line of the business and they don’t have to go through so many hierarchical levels to get things done. So one of the questions for larger organisations is how do we reduce red-tape? And one answer to that is to have better delegation and empower people to have decision making autonomy, within boundaries.”

The other benefit of smaller teams is that people who are empowered to make decisions at work feel a stronger sense of purpose. Burgess says we can’t underestimate the importance of this.

“When people feel that they’re contributing to something larger than themselves and have a healthy level of passion for the work they’re doing, that has significant positive impacts on their sense of wellbeing and their resilience levels. And, in turn, it also means they’re more likely to stay with their employer. It’s a win-win situation.

Read the full insights from this research here.

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