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Productivity crisis, or mental health crisis?

Recently the Federal Government job summit identified productivity as being key to business, economic and wages growth. One key contributor that I believe has been overlooked, is the mental health of our work force and how this impacts not only productivity, but also the future of any organisation.

In 2012 Professor Allan Fels, former chairman of the ACCC said: “Mental health is more significant for our economy than tax and micro economic reforms.” This statement is reinforced with the most recent National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing (conducted between December 2020 and July 2021).

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), we are collectively experiencing nothing short of a mental health crisis:

  • One in five Australians had a mental health disorder during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, including 3.3 million people with anxiety disorders.

  • One in four females (24.6 per cent) had a mental disorder in 2020-21.

  • Women experienced higher rates of anxiety disorders than men (21 per cent versus 12.4 per cent) and also had more affective disorders (8.5 per cent versus 6.2 percent of men).

  • Men had almost twice the rate of substance-use disorder as women, with 4.4 per cent of men and 2.3 per cent of women experiencing a drug or alcohol abuse disorder, among the 19 million Australians aged 16 to 85.

With all these sobering statistics, I thought I would share my own personal experience of consulting to various businesses in the corporate space and, also managing my own mental health and wellbeing during the pandemic. Let’s face it, the pandemic has created much uncertainty and upheaval over the last few years. This volatility has only escalated with further social, economic, geopolitical and environmental concerns.

If you have kept up with my pandemic postings, the last two and a half years has been an exercise in focusing on what is in my circle of control. Managing my health needs with regular movement, healthful eating, rejuvenating sleep and adaptive stress management practices such as meditation. For me these“physical pillars” of wellbeing are integral to being resilient and underpin maintaining good mental health when faced with increasing demands and challenge

But self-care is more than the physical. Psychosocial pillars also uphold my wellbeing. These include adaptive stress management, connection and psychological flexibility. When faced with troubling thoughts and emotions associated with uncertain times, I have endeavoured to open up and stay with difficult experiences, avoiding alcohol and food for comfort. When I have had an occasional lapse, I have tried to exercise self-compassion. I have also tried to savour the good and be grateful, thereby helping create emotional balance and contentment. PS I don’t always get it perfect but I keep chipping away!

According to the biopsychosocial model, mental health is the result of many forces occurring at different times which have a cumulative effect on the individual. This model suggests that biological, psychological and social factors are all interlinked and important with regard to promoting wellbeing or conversely causing mental ill health.

One thing that I became acutely aware of having lived through numerous Melbourne lockdowns, is the importance of connection. Connection was more than interpersonal, it was about connecting with my purpose and finding more time to connect with nature.

But what happens when an organisation is undermining your wellbeing? In regards to the workspace, burnout is a term that is being thrown about in the business world. However, burnout cannot be answered solely at an individual level. One can have all the self-care strategies in the world, however if the corporate culture is one of ever-increasing demands and reducing resources, chronic stress in the workspace often results. Habits of self-care will increase your coping skills however, there is also a need to modify the environment. This must also be tackled at an organisational level. There is an opportunity for company leaders to reflect inwards and address the stressors that may be present in a toxic work environment.

For instance, I often see the necessity of employees being available 24/7 in an online capacity, if they want to climb the corporate ladder. No matter how well resourced an inhouse wellbeing program is; answering emails at midnight or on the weekend is not sustainable or healthy. In this instance better job design, adjusting responsibilities and workload maybe required. There is often a disconnect at the basic values level of an organisation. For example – work place yoga and meditation sessions at lunch, while at the same time encouraging an extreme drinking culture to decompress. A recent Fairfax article highlights the psychological implications of such a high stress and toxic work environment.

Many companies are now pivoting to a hybrid workforce and the working from home (WFH) phenomena, or more accurately the WFH norm. The pandemic saw many work/ life boundaries dissolve. This reduced the ability for many to separate home and work life often resulting in more hours worked. Organisations are struggling to maintain a sense of community and connection, while everyone is working from home. As important, is how managers maintain a sense of relatedness and synergy amongst teams, while also monitoring the possible signs of psychological distress in the workspace. SafeWork Australia has recently released a Model Code of Practice for Managing Psychosocial Hazards at Work, highlighting the necessity of employers to better manage this space.

If we only look at productivity as doing more with less, we may miss the bigger picture cost of chronic stress and how this impacts mental health and the health of our economy in the long term. If we refer to the biopsychosocial model, mental ill health has many and varied contributing factors. We can build the capacity at an individual level to cope with stress by promoting self-care behaviours (physically and psychologically), however we must also consider the work environment, the values and culture it promotes.

Some things to consider…

What resources (physical, psychological and social) have you deemed as being imperative for supporting your wellbeing over the last two years?

When faced with ongoing stress, how have you managed to reduce your demands and build your capacity?

Have you been able to do this at an individual level and within your organisation?

I would love the hear from you J.

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