Workplace happiness and wellbeing is a hot topic right now - as seventeen million search results in Google will testify - and there are 1000s of wellbeing 'solutions' being offered to companies, from yoga sessions to paintball days.
More sensibly, conferences like Wellbeing at Work are putting mental health right at the top of the agenda and giving HR directors a chance to think through the causes of workplace stress and develop practical solutions for their companies.
In the UK there were 8.2 million cases of anxiety in 2013 (1). Many of these affected members of the UK workforce - needing time off, medication and treatment. This has a significant impact on GDP - around £30 Billion in fact (2) - but it is the human impact of this that riles me the most. How those people must be feeling, the impact on their relationships, families and health - it's just tragic.
There are multiple initiatives aimed at reducing the problem, from the NHS Mindful Employer programme to the many commercial providers of everything from meditation to pilates and, yes, even paintball. But wouldn't it be better, more humane and economical to get upstream of these issues and prevent the whole sorry situation in the first place?
That's a rhetorical question of course, and many business leaders have already connected the dots of stress, mental health and productivity. But how do they build an environment where the mental health of their people is valued, protected and nurtured?
Here's what we know:
Stress is inherent in the workplace - and that's a fact! Deadlines, the year-end or a big client pitch - it's normal to have some stress in the operation. In fact some stress is even good for us - we rise to it, relish the challenge and revel in the success of overcoming it. A core human need is to be stretched to overcome adversity - it makes us feel good, up to a point.
These peaks in stress are fine; part of the deal, though it takes planning, good management and sometimes a bit of luck to make sure the peaks do not become continuous and take people to breaking point.
However, there is another problem - a silent assassin - and solving the workplace stress issue depends on understanding this. Apart from the acknowledged peaks and troughs, there are background stresses in the workplace, nibbling away at people, unconsciously eroding their mental capacity and diminishing their ability to think clearly, communicate and collaborate.
This continual background stress, from multiple, unseen sources, gnaws away at our mental health. Some people don't notice it, though they may well resent feeling exhausted and cross at the end of the day. Others accept it as something that goes with the job - something to put up with until they retire, or until a better job comes along.
Everybody has a threshold, a limit to what they can take before they become ill. This background stress festers away over time, to the point where it may take only a tiny problem to push someone over the edge into a clinical problem. For the individual that means a diagnosis, often of anxiety and/or depression, and often with other health issues involved. For the company it means sickness, absence, lost productivity and the complications of managing return to work.
So what can we do? Well, we can start by acknowledging that the human being is not a machine that can just come in, sit down, do the work, get paid and go home. Our species is more complex than that, and the workplace that understands this will get more from its staff. It's not a one-way street - the staff will get more from their work, too.
Humans have a set of core needs - not sushi and lattes but social and emotional needs. Some we notice, like the need to be in connection with other people, but others are normally hidden in our subconscious. A business that understands where the psychological and practical needs of its staff are being met - and takes the trouble to help out where they are not - will have a happier staff.
When our needs are met we are in our happy, normal operating mode - getting stuff done, communicating and thinking clearly. The opposite - and we have all felt this - is that problems we don't notice, don't think about or may not even have names for, make us brain-fogged, anxious and irritated.
There are multiple ways of thinking about human needs, from Maslow's original idea to the many current researchers in the field, but try this practical list out on yourself and see how well your own working life measures up. We call it the 4C model for intelligent performance:
Cognitive We need to understand in clear, concrete terms what we are doing, who for and why it is important to them. We're a social species and if we know someone else will be better off as a result of our efforts we work harder. That's why people volunteer or take jobs in healthcare. We need to understand precisely what our part is in the bigger picture, and to feel that our colleagues share that vision and are collaborating.
Capability We get frustrated or embarrassed if we are trying to do something and don't have the necessary knowledge, skills or resources to make it work. We also need to feel competent in what we do - people who go home feeling satisfied that they made things work and contributed to the team effort are much more likely to sleep well and come in the next day with a spring in their step.
Connection We need to be involved in regular, positive interactions with other people, as being isolated is highly unpleasant for most of us. That's why being 'sent to Coventry' is such a punishment for children. We need a sense of common purpose, or a 'team spirit' if we are going to do well, and teams where this is nurtured really are more than the sum of their parts. We also need feedback so we know what our position is in the group, and that our efforts are being appreciated by others.
Confidence Finally there's a group of indicators which show the stresses on people where these needs aren't met properly. Ask yourself, do you feel secure at work, and if not why? Is it physical, financial, or to do with the security of your knowledge, skills, or social position? Are you in control, do you have a reasonable degree of autonomy in the way you work, because it is inherently stressful if you don't. Do you have occasional breaks where you can clear your mind and prepare for the next bout of work, because learning and concentration depend on it. How much are you worrying about forthcoming work, becuase worry corrodes intellectual capacity as well as impacting on your sleep and health? And finally, do you find work meaningful, is there a point beyond paying the bills?
If you can say yes, all of the time, to all of the above, you are in a very special position; you will have a good time at work and your employer will get good value from your time there.
Our employee engagement software - WeThrive - measures how close to that ideal state of flow each of your people are. It does this by asking questions around this model. pinpointing where there are deficits and, most importantly, what you can do to make it better.
This gets you upstream of the root causes of stress, anxiety and depression, sorting out the underlying problems before they affect the mental health and overall wellbeing of your staff.
1Fineberg, N., Haddad, P., Carpenter, L., Gannon, B., Sharpe, R., Young, A., Joyce, E., Rowe, J., Wellsted, D., Nutt, D. and Sahakian, B. (2013). The size, burden and cost of disorders of the brain in the UK. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 27(9), pp.761-770.
2 ACAS - see http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=3915