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Actions employers should take to reduce employee burnout and maximise productivity: 3 experts share their wellbeing tips

Aug 31, 2020

By Michael Barrell

What’s the best way to increase wellbeing at your organisation? Ask a hundred people and you’ll get 100 different answers.

This post serves a couple purposes. The first is to collect and share some crème de la crème workplace wellbeing tips from the authors you’ll find below. The second purpose is admittedly a little more self-serving. We’re constantly on the lookout for solid, no B.S. workplace wellbeing material that actually works. So we wanted to know what some of the best in the business think organisations can do to give wellbeing the best chances for success.

Let’s dive in!

Jeffrey Pfeffer – Author of Dying for a Paycheck

Dying for a Paycheck book

Professor Pfeffer says that if you really want to increase employee health and wellbeing, focus on job control and social support. Further, he says any organisation, in any industry, can pull these levers without breaking the bank. Today, though, too few do.

Job control

Studies going back decades have shown that job control—the amount of discretion employees have to determine what they do and how they do it—has a major impact on their physical health. Recent research also indicates that limited job control has ill effects that extend beyond the physical, imposing a burden on employees’ mental health, too. Organisations can guard against these dangers by creating roles with more fluidity and autonomy, and by erecting barriers to micromanagement.

Unfortunately, depending on an employee’s manager, her employer, and the design of her work, her choices about what to do and how to do it can disappear – leaving her more stressed and more vulnerable to ill health. Professor Pfeffer describes some straightforward actions organisations can take to avoid creating such an environment.

Guard against micromanagement

Professor Pfeffer explains that micromanaging is common at work because many managers are poor at coaching and facilitating others to do their jobs better. When managers micromanage their subordinates, those individuals lose their autonomy and sense of control to the bosses who won’t delegate.

Incorporate more autonomy and fluidity into every role

People often believe that providing job control is possible only for some jobs, and for some people. But that is not the case according to Professor Pfeffer. All people can be given more decision-making discretion in their jobs and latitude to control their work.

Professor Pfeffer provides an example of call centre staff (generally an occupation with limited autonomy and fluidity) employed at San Francisco-based Collective Health. In order to keep their staff happy and engaged, Collective Health trains its hires thoroughly on key technical tools, while regularly rotating their physical locations and assigned tasks: one week they may be coordinating benefit issues, and the next solving larger issues outside their department, giving them an overall picture of how everything works.

In this way, Collective Health’s staff are continually empowered to solve problems on the floor as they discover them, and connecting with other teams in the company. The system has not only increased employee retention by providing people with more interesting and impactful work, it has also proven more efficient at resolving problems.

Social support

Professor Pfeffer reports on the overwhelming evidence that social support—family and friends you can count on, as well as close relationships—can have a direct effect on health and buffers the effects of various psychosocial stresses, including workplace stress, that can compromise health.

Unfortunately, workplaces sometimes have characteristics that make it harder to build relationships and provide support. Professor Pfeffer asks us to consider, for example, practices that foster internal competition such as forced curve ranking, which reduces collaboration and teamwork. In fact, Professor Pfeffer says that anything pitting people against one another weakens social ties among employees and reduces the social support that produces healthier workplaces. Equally destructive are transactional workplace approaches in which people are seen as factors of production and where the emphasis is on trading money for work, without much emotional connection between people and their place of work.

Professor Pfeffer says that rooting out practices like these is a good starting point for leaders seeking to build environments with stronger social support. He also describes some straightforward and effective actions organisations can take that are easy to overlook:

  • Demonstrate commitment to offering help;
  • Encourage people to care for one another;
  • Fix the language; and
  • Support shared connections

Demonstrate commitment to offering help

Professor Pfeffer uses the example of SAS Institute, often found near the top of “best places to work” lists, as a company whose business strategy is premised on long-term relationships with its employees.

For instance, when a SAS employee died in a boating accident one weekend, a question arose: What would happen to his children, currently enrolled in company-subsidised day care? How long would they be permitted to stay? The answer: as long as they wanted to and were age-eligible, regardless of the fact that they no longer had a parent employed by the company.

And perhaps nothing signifies SAS’s commitment to its employees’ wellbeing more than its investment in a chief health officer whose job entails not just running the on-site health facility but ensuring that SAS employees can access the medical care they need to remain healthy and to be fully cared for if they get sick.

Encourage people to care for one another

Similar to the SAS example above, Professor Pfeffer says that healthcare and dialysis company DaVita created the DaVita Village Network to give employees the opportunity, through optional payroll contributions, to help each other during times of crisis—such as a natural disaster, an accident, or an illness. When southwest Florida was hit by a series of hurricanes in 2004, a dialysis administrator noted, “The DaVita Village Network provided our housing while our homes were uninhabitable, and provided funding for food until we were able to get back on our feet.”

Fix the language

One simple technique Professor Pfeffer mentions is drawn from the fact that people are more likely to like and help others with whom they share some sort of unit relationship, to whom they feel similar, and with whom they feel connected. Language in the workplace that emphasises divisions between leadership and employees can further alienate people and erode any sense of shared community or identity. To this end, Professor Pfeffer suggests ensuring that people are less separated by title, and use language that is consistent with the idea of community.

Support shared connections

According to Professor Pfeffer, almost anything that brings people into contact in a pleasant and meaningful context—from holidays to community service to events that celebrate employee tenure or shared successes such as product launches—helps build a sense of common identity and strengthens social bonds.

Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and the author of 15 books.

Jill Klein – Author of We Got the Water: Tracing My Family’s Path Through Auschwitz

We got the water book

Lesson on coping from the Holocaust

Professor Klein’s father is a Holocaust survivor, having been in Auschwitz in 1944 when he was 16 years old.

He does a great deal of public speaking about his Holocaust experiences and she is on faculty at Melbourne Business School, so they decided to develop a session together on resilience for business leaders. To a large degree, these sessions include talking about the coping strategies Professor Klein’s father used in the camps.

According to Professor Klein, these strategies are remarkably consistent with what research tells us are ways to cope – garnering social support, helping others, having a goal and breaking it down into manageable steps, and having flexibility in how you see the difficult situation you are in:

“My father always had a buddy in the camps and they helped each other out whenever possible. He had the goal of getting back home to his mother and two sisters, and he broke that goal down into smaller milestones – when he woke up in the morning he was determined to get through the day’s slave labour, when he went to sleep at night he was determined to wake up again in the morning. He employed flexible thinking by telling himself that if he dies, then the Nazis win. If he survives, then he wins. And he wanted to win.”

Fixed versus growth mindset

Professor Klein believes mindset can make a significant difference in the ability to cope. Specifically, by learning to move from a fixed to a growth mindset

Professor Klein says that a fixed mindset is the belief that intelligence is set, so it doesn’t change much or even at all, and is something you either have or you don’t. People may think this about certain skills or abilities. For instance, some people are good at art or maths, while some aren’t.

According to Professor Klein, a growth mindset, by contrast, is focused on the idea that these things are actually malleable – that one gets smart or you get good at things by practice and having people help you learn, and sometimes also by having failures and learning from those failures.

Whether a person has a fixed or a growth mindset can have significant implications for their ability to cope with setbacks and learn new skills. If you have a fixed mindset, according to Professor Klein, you’re less likely to want to take on challenges than if you have a growth mindset, because the chances that you might fail in a challenge are greater than if you do something that’s easier. In other words, if you believe you either have it or you don’t and you fail when trying to do something, then that tells you that you don’t have it.

Professor Klein also says that mindset can also affect a person’s ability to accept and learn from criticism.

If you have a growth mindset, you see negative feedback from a mentor as an opportunity to learn from someone with more experience. But if you have a fixed mindset, what you’re likely to do is defend against it, if you can.

Thankfully a growth mindset is something that can be learnt, according to Professor Klein.

Changing to a growth mindset

Professor Klein says that we can all move towards a growth mindset, but it is something that requires practise and effort, just like any other skill.

‘When you are taking on a challenge, or you get criticised about something, those are times when a fixed mindset is likely to hit you,’ she said. ‘So you want to listen for your fixed mindset voice: “If I can’t do this, I’ll be a failure”, “If I had talent, I would have been able to do that”.

‘When you hear that think, “What is a more of a process-oriented, growth mindset thing I could say to myself?” Perhaps, “I might not be able to do this the first time, but it’s just going to take practise”.

‘So you listen for the fixed mindset thoughts and speak back with the growth mindset thoughts. The idea is that [growth mindset] will become your default cognitive habit over time.

‘It’s not easy to change our cognitive habits, but it’s like learning to drive a car – it gets easier and easier.’

Mindset and resilience

Moving from a fixed to a growth mindset is also beneficial for building resilience and positive mental health.

‘This is because resilience tools have to do with how we interpret events that happen to us, and there’s healthy and unhealthy ways to do that,’ Professor Klein said.

‘With a growth mindset, it’s easier to come up with healthier attributions and appraisals for the things that happen to us.’

Professor Klein also believes a growth mindset can be extremely helpful to professionals at times of great stress.

Jill Klein is a Professor of Management and Marketing, Melbourne Business School, University of Melbourne.

E. Kevin Kelloway – Co-author of Workplace Well-being: How to Build Psychologically Healthy Workplaces

How-to-Build-Psychologically-Healthy-Workplaces book

Professor Kelloway has identified a problem in the flurry of workplace mental health program that are associated with promulgation of the standard. First, although many organisational wellbeing efforts are well intended, there is not a strong evidence base that provides guidance as to what are the most effective workplace strategies. In essence, he says we have convinced organisations to act but are not well positioned to advise them as to what actions to take.

As a result, Prof Kelloway suggests that comprehensive workplace mental health programs must address at least three basic issues: prevention, intervention, and accommodation.

Prevention

Prevention efforts focus on changing workplace conditions in an effort to positively affect employee wellbeing. Although there exist numerous potential areas for change, most of Prof Kelloway’s work has been focused on changing organisational leadership and, in particular, improving the way that organisational leaders treat, and interact with, those that they lead.

Eliminating abusive leadership

The suggestion that the way your leader treats you has an effect on your physical and psychological wellbeing is hardly novel. Nor would such a claim come as a surprise to any working adult. What may be more surprising, according to Prof Kelloway, is the nature and extent of these effects. Leaders affect employee wellbeing both directly and indirectly. For example, negative interactions with leaders are associated with increased blood pressure during, and following, the work shift. Leaders have an indirect effect on employee wellbeing in that leaders may be a “root cause” of other forms of organisational stress. Thus leaders who assign excess work or tight deadlines to individuals may exacerbate feelings of role overload or work–family conflict.

Proff Kelloway says we already know quite a bit about the specific styles and actions of leaders that affect individual wellbeing. Having a leader who is abusive is associated with increased employee strain, burnout, and diminished levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy. When leaders treat employees unfairly, employees may experience increased rates of psychiatric disorders. There is also a growing body of literature pointing to the negative effects associated with having a “passive” leader at work.

Promoting transformational leadership

In addition to the evidence pointing to negative effects associated with poor leadership, Prof Kelloway says there is also now research suggesting that positive forms of leadership are associated with enhanced wellbeing. Most of this research has focused on the notion of transformational leadership—the most widely studied leadership theory. Specifically, transformational leadership behaviours has been associated with employees’ sense of optimism, happiness, and enthusiasm. It has also been found that employees with transformational leaders experienced their work as being more meaningful and this sense of meaning, in turn, was associated with enhanced wellbeing. For this reason, Prof Kelloway suggests that leadership training and development could be considered a health intervention in organisations.

Fortunately, Prof Kelloway says there is quite a bit of data supporting the proposition that leadership interventions “work.” In referring to a meta-analysis of over 200 studies, among others, Kelloway has found that transformational leadership has been consistently shown the be a learned skill that can be developed through training. Moreover, increasing leaders’ transformational leadership can result in increases in employee affective commitment to the organisation—a measure that can be considered an assessment of context-specific mental health.

Consistent with these findings, Prof Kelloway and colleagues recently evaluated the effectiveness of leadership training on employee wellbeing. The results indicated that when leaders were trained in transformational leadership, their employees reported enhanced psychological wellbeing. Serendipitously, he also noted that leaders’ own psychological wellbeing improved as a result of leadership training. Although there is much work left to do, Prof Kelloway says the findings to date suggest that leadership—and potentially other organisational conditions— can be changed to positively influence employee wellbeing.

Intervention

To the extent that we can help organisations create better or healthier work environments, we should certainly do so. However, Prof Kelloway suggests that we must also recognise that not all employee concerns originate in the workplace and a sole focus on prevention is not likely to have the kind of effects we are hoping for. Rather, he suggest that there is considerable value in seeing the workplace as a site for intervention. Just like public health programs aimed at children (e.g., vaccination) may be administered through the school system because that is the easiest way to reach children, there is a similar value in targeting mental health issues in the workplace because many adults spend their days in the workplace.

To this end, Prof Kelloway proposes that organisational leaders could act as resource facilitators—assisting individuals who were struggling to (a) recognise that additional help is required, (b) identify the resources that are available to them in the organisation, and (c) to access those resources. A central assumption underlying this proposal is that managers were able to identify when individuals are struggling.

To test this assumption, Prof Kelloway refers to a number of qualitative interviews performed with managers who had supervised at least one individual who was experiencing mental health difficulties. The managers identified four types of behaviour as cues that an individual was struggling at work: (a) Individuals engaged in negative emotional expressions. They talked about feeling  overwhelmed, wanting to quit work or being stressed. (b) Individuals withdrew from social interactions—they stopped going to coffee with others, or did not engage in social interaction in the workplace. (c) Individuals began to miss time at work, phoning in sick, being tardy, or leaving work early. (d) Finally, individuals who were struggling started missing performance targets—missing deadlines, not completing assignments, or turning in poor-quality work. In many cases it was not the behaviour per se but, rather, the change in the behaviour that signalled that an individual was having difficulties. Moreover, these behavioural manifestations of struggle were both observable by managers and within the managers’ scope of authority. Managers could address these issues not as mental health concerns but as performance/workplace issues. It was clear in the interviews that managers had no interest in diagnosis or in differentiating mental health issues from any other kind of personal struggle—they simply wanted to address the workplace issue and provide access to whatever resources the organisation made available (e.g., employee assistance programs or benefits for psychological services).

Mental Health First Aid Training

Prof Kelloway says that one way in which organisations have been addressing mental health issues in the workplace is through the growing popularity of mental health or psychological first aid training. Designed to teach the public to give initial help to a person who may be developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis, over a decade of research now supports the effectiveness of Mental Health First Aid training in increasing mental health literacy and individual self-efficacy to provide support to others.

Prof Kelloway suggests that leadership should play a key target for Mental Health First Aid training for several reasons. First, we know that the supervisor– employee relationship is important to maintaining positive employee health and wellbeing. Second, supervisors are typically in frequent contact with employees and in a position to notice variations in workplace behaviour. Early detection and intervention improves the prognosis for mental health problems. Finally, qualitative data suggest that managers were motivated to help employees who were struggling. As for deciding on what to include in Mental Health First Aid training, Prof Kelloway suggests focusing on (a) about the most common mental health problems and issues and (b) what resources (i.e., policies, programs, benefits, contacts) were available through their organisations.

As to the effectiveness of Mental Health First Aid training, Prof Kelloway refers to a recent training effectiveness study of two organisations that he was involved in. In both organisations a similar pattern of results emerged. Relative to the control group, managers who received the Mental Health First Aid training demonstrated increased knowledge about mental health issues, improved attitudes toward individuals with mental health problems, increased self-efficacy around dealing with mental health issues and increased intent to promote mental health at post-test. All of these changes were sustained at the 8-week post-test. In the second organisation, Prof Kelloway’s team was also able to examine the frequency and duration of disability claims for psychiatric diagnoses. Although the team could not tie these claims directly to the training, it knew that post-training claims were, on average, 18 days shorter with no change in frequency.

In 2016, these positive findings were substantially replicated and extended to show that both leaders and employees experienced more positive outcomes that were related to the Mental Health First Aid training intervention. Prof Kelloway states that there is, of course, always more work to do to assess intervention efforts in organisations. Results to date, however, suggest that a relatively brief intervention focused on leaders and tailored to the specific resources and policies of the organisation can have positive effects on how leaders view mental health disorders and how they intervene with employees who are struggling.

Accommodation

Perhaps the area of workplace mental health that we know the least about is how organisations accommodate individuals with mental health problems. There are two major issues related to accommodation, according to Prof Kelloway: (a) How do we bring people back to work after a period of disability leave resulting from a mental health disorder? (b) How do we keep people in the workplace rather than having them go off on disability leave?

Fortunately, there is some guidance to be had from the extensive literature dealing with physical disabilities. Prof Kelloway refers to a systematic review of the return to work literature to suggest several practices that lead to successful return to work programs that all appear to be related to early and successful return to work:

  • The availability of alternative work assignments or work accommodations;
  • The use of a return to work coordinator;
  • Early and considerate contact with the employee when they go off on leave; and
  • Well-established channels of communication between the workplace and health care providers

Unfortunately, Prof Kelloway says that mental health stigma remains a significant obstacle in the return to work space. As with other “invisible” injuries, concerns about stigmatisation may result in workers not asking for, or taking advantage of, return to work arrangements. Worse, the stigma experienced by psychologically injured workers may be “anti-therapeutic” and contribute to both failed return to work and chronic disability. Research in this area suggests that education programs – like Mental Health First Aid training can improve people’s attributions about and attitudes toward people with psychiatric conditions.

E. Kevin Kelloway is a Professor of  Organisational Psychology at St Mary’s University, Nova Scotia.

What Next?

If any of the above resonated with you, then do grab a copy of my FREE Workforce Wellbeing Cheat Sheet delivered straight to your inbox.

Cheers

Michael

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