In an interview1 in September this year Mental Health Foundation CE (Shaun Robinson) publicly stated that Mental Health is the biggest health issue in New Zealand, second only to COVID-19.
Since the beginning of 2020 the employee experience has fundamentally changed with the challenges of working from home meaning blurred lines between work and home life. Employees are reporting increased psychological symptoms – including anxiety, depression and irritability. There are significant mental health and stress impacts on the familial support systems, and the role of the carer has really come into focus. Many working age adults are having to navigate home schooling, keeping kids at home engaged, care for aging parents, juggling work responsibilities and remote working challenges, while also navigating the changing pandemic landscape.
Workforce exhaustion was identified in Mercer Marsh Benefits’ “The Five Pillars of People Risk Report 2021” as the fourth highest risk amongst all people risks, and is an escalating concern that requires immediate attention. When asked ‘to what extent is your organisation currently addressing this risk?’ respondents rated it 11th place on the list of organisational priorities, behind other items like data privacy, labour & employee relations, and communicable health conditions. Besides the long term health risks of workforce exhaustion, there is also an organisational cost to ignoring this issue, including toxic work cultures, low employee morale and engagement, high employee turnover, low productivity and higher medical claims.
Since the pandemic, we have acquired a new glossary of terms to describe the various states of workforce exhaustion:
Languishing: While not all New Zealanders are feeling levels of distress and discomfort that would warrant a mental health diagnosis, many are experiencing the effects of Pandemic Languishing. Some are calling Languishing the dominant emotion of 2021.
“Languishing is the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being” psychologist Adam Grant wrote in the New York Times2. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, which increases the workload (as things pile up) but significantly reduces your motivation to get through it. In addition, while languishing is not a diagnosable mental health condition, it appears to be a significant risk factor for developing mental illness.
Emotional Exhaustion: Emotional exhaustion is this sense of overwhelm. Overwhelmed to the point where you feel like you don't have the capacity to deal with life anymore. It's physical tiredness. It's mental tiredness. It's difficulty concentrating. It's all the things that we experience when we’ve reached our limit or capacity.
Burnout: Burnout was the unofficial 2020 mental health buzzword. According to the World Health Organisation, burnout is specifically a form of work-related stress that has not been successfully managed. Common symptoms include feelings of energy depletion, cynicism about one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy.
Alonely: Aloneliness is the opposite of loneliness. It's the dissatisfaction that comes from not spending enough time by yourself. During the pandemic, when home, school and office life has been combined in one space, this feeling is becoming more common.
The pandemic ‘experience’ is very unique for everyone and New Zealand workplaces need to provide solutions that meet these varied needs of their workforce. Organisations should take a human-centred design approach when developing a curated mental health and wellbeing framework that is data-led and research-informed.
The Mercer Global Talent Trends 2021 Report has indicated that workplaces are craving initiatives that provide benefits to employees that address mental health or emotional health issues; train managers to identify mental health issues and support with early help seeking activities, and provide access to digital or remote mental health services. Interestingly, there has also been an identified need for organisations to take a more coordinated and multi-year approach to mental health and wellbeing, with the implementation of an overarching strategy or framework – rather than a quick-fix or tokenistic approach to employee wellbeing.
Mercer Marsh Benefits have identified a range of initiatives that can assist in managing mental health risks at an employee level from prevention through to treatment:
COVID-19 has pushed mental and physical wellbeing up the corporate agenda, but organisations must tread carefully. Poorly designed plans or “quick-fix” solutions are likely to cost more money and yield little to no return on investment with the added potential to undermine health and employee engagement. An evidence-based approach that understands and addresses the specific needs of the workforce is the key to successful program design, measurement and implementation.
2 There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing by Adam Grant, New York Times. Published 19 April 2021
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