Transforming Taboos into Well-Being for the Workplace

From terrorism to cyberattacks to climate change, we live in an increasingly complex world plagued by a host of destabilizing challenges and crises. At the same time, rapid digital transformation is redefining the workplace for all generations, and in particular, for millennials and members of Generation Z, at an unrelenting pace.

The problem of workplace burnout is no longer just a buzzword reserved for casual social conservation – all sectors are grappling with a staggering number of people succumbing to burnout.  The World Health Organization[1] has now officially included “burnout” in its international disease classification.  Typically originating from chronic workplace stress and manifesting as a host of physical and mental health symptoms, burnout is on the rise at a time when global productivity is at an all-time low.

Gallup’s new State of the Global Workplace report indicates that just 15% of employees worldwide are engaged in their jobs. Conversely, 85% are functioning below their potential — in terms of both their value to employers and the sense of fulfillment they derive from their work. By 2030, the biggest silent killer in the workplace is likely to become burnout if organizations are not stepping up.

Mental health and well-being at the workplace are still largely perceived as a “personal issue” and a burden on the employee without organizational accountability for the problem.

 

The work environment is becoming more complex, more demanding and more digitized, and evidence suggests that millennials, who are expected to constitute over 75% of the global workforce by 2030, and members of Generation Z are ill-equipped to successfully navigate workplace challenges. According to a recent May 2019 article in The Wall Street Journal[2], members of Generation Z are the most anxious generation to enter the United States (“U.S.”) workforce with 54% of workers under the age of 23 reporting feelings of anxiety and stress per the American Psychological Association 2018 Stress in America Survey.  And millennials aren’t far behind with approximately 40% reporting feelings of anxiety and stress in the same survey.  Furthermore, the millennial generation has been called the “burnout generation” by the popular press both in the U.S. and the E.U. with high numbers of millennials experiencing work-related physical and mental/emotional maladies and exhaustion.

While the millennial generation is most often regarded in the popular press as the face of the workplace burnout epidemic, older generations of workers are not immune to workplace burnout.  In the U.S. industrial Midwest, for example, older generations of workers who once enjoyed decades of relative job security in manufacturing plants must now complete a host of workforce development and job retraining programs because their jobs have been displaced by automation, robots and other forms of artificial intelligence.  Late in life career changes do not come without challenges and chief among them is workplace burnout.

Time to Disrupt Traditional Solutions

In an age where digital transformation and emerging technologies are likely to reshape the global workforce, employees will face unprecedented challenges which will in turn test the orderly and efficient operation of organizations around the world.  From millennials and members of Generation Z at high risk of burnout as they climb the career ladders in demanding environments that require them to be glued to their electronic devices to older workers who must embrace late in life career changes due to the rise of automation and robots, workplace burnout is an inevitable reality that will challenge global governance from both a cost perspective and a human perspective for years to come.

The costs of workplace burnout are simply staggering.  Low productivity and performance levels across the globe will continue to cost organizations billions of US dollars annually.  Furthermore, the cost in healthcare spending alone ranges anywhere between 125$ billion and 190$ billion per year due to employee burnout; representing 5 to 8 percent of national spending on health care (HBR 2019)[3].  While the rise in labor costs produced by workplace burnout are high, they can fortunately be reversed. The cost in human lives is one which is irreversible. From 2000 to 2016, the U.S. suicide rate related to work stress among adults ages 16 to 64 rose 34 percent, from 12.9 deaths for every 100,000 people in the population to 17.3 per 100,000, according to a study commissioned by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Solutions for burnout have been mainly focused on training programs addressing resilience, stress management, leadership development on an individual level. Building an inclusive, emotional intelligent and resilient workforce for the 21st Century also requires organizational accountability. Without the organizational investment in creating structural changes that are people-centric, the problem of work place burnout will continue to grow at the global level across sectors.

What’s your Silver Bullet?

Burnout has historically been considered a taboo topic in the workplace with minimal attention paid to burnout prevention.  For far too long, workplace strategies for addressing burnout have focused on rehabilitating workers once they have succumbed to burnout.  These strategies are often short-term and are perhaps best considered “band-aid” strategies because they fail to remedy the root causes of burnout which are both employee-specific and environment driven.  These myopic band-aid strategies oftentimes only emphasize the employee-specific aspects of burnout and typically include extended leaves/absences from work and sessions with therapists and other mental health professionals.

It is time we rip off the band-aid and strive for a holistic, comprehensive approach to workplace burnout that seeks to prevent burnout by addressing and rectifying the root causes of burnout on both an individual and organizational level.  An integral component of this holistic, comprehensive approach is a mechanism that encourages meaningful action and results-oriented accountability on the organizational level.

I thereby propose the development of the “Workplace Burnout Prevention Scorecard,” an innovative, first-of-its-kind standardized metric by which global organizations across a variety of industries will be held publicly accountable for implementing policies and adopting practices geared towards preventing workplace burnout.  The Workplace Burnout Prevention Scorecard will be developed by private-public sector leaders in consultation with leading physicians at renowned universities (e.g. Johns Hopkins University, Stanford University and Yale University). The Workplace Burnout Prevention Scorecard will list a set of specific objectives and Key Performance Indicators (KPI) by which organizations will be measured.

Financial Debt going up

The impact of burnout is costing the private sector billions of dollars each year in addition to the untapped human potential with low productivity and performance levels. The incentives for the private sector to reverse this trend are significant. The solution of developing “The Workplace Burnout Prevention Scorecard” is 100% disruptive and innovative as it has never been done before at a global governance level amongst the private – public sector. Furthermore, my solution seeks to address a crucial aspect for burnout prevention from an organizational perspective. For the scorecard to be successfully implemented, both the private and public sector should be part of the solution during the life cycle development of the solution in three phases.

Phase one will consist of designing the score card, defining the metrics and setting KPIs in collaboration with globally renowned research universities as mentioned before. Ensuring the scorecard includes realistic targets and ensures buy-in from across the public-private sector is key for holding organizations accountable. Phase two will consist of developing the application and bringing it to market through a pilot project. The pilot project can last anywhere between six to nine months and includes the metrics from employees who have been re-integrated into the workforce. Once the score card and the application have been put into the market, phase three will focus on leading a campaign to reduce burnout to 50% by 2025 through a unique pledge by leaders from the public and private sector.

Transforming Taboos into Well-Being at Work

My solution destigmatizes burnout and mental health issues at work. The lack of psychological safety provided by organizations, and the societal taboo of burnout as a mental and physical weakness forces people to carry their burden to the detriment of their overall well-being.

Second, the scorecard will promote knowledge sharing and awareness. Only recently has the WHO provided an internationally officially recognized broad definition for work place burnout. Many people however still have a limited understanding and often don’t even recognize the symptoms until it is too late. Through the scorecard burnout prevention metrics and KPIs, the debate on burnout is likely to be more meaningful and educational for the larger public opinion.

Third, the scorecard will foster transparency by holding organizations accountable for their burnout prevention programs. To date, organizations have largely addressed the issue of workplace burnout by putting the burden primarily on the employee without taking full responsibility for their part.

Finally, people are constantly changing industries and jobs. Having a universal scorecard that is industry agnostic and applicable across all industries in the public and private sector is critical for sustainability and effectiveness.  “The Workplace Burnout Prevention Scorecard” can apply to several companies with similar organizational characteristics and standardized metrics for people across their entire life.

 

Change does not happen overnight, but a first step in the right direction must be taken. The right direction is to now focus on organizational accountability through innovative and disruptive measures focused on burnout prevention in the workplace.

 

[1] https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en/

[2] https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-most-anxious-generation-goes-to-work-11557418951

[3] https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/national-health-costs-could-decrease-if-managers-reduce-work-stress 

This article was written by Nadja El Fertasi, CEO of EQ (Emotional Intelligence) Coaching & Consulting. The article is in response to Bloomberg’s New Economy Forum call for disruptive solutions. Although the solution did not make it to the forum itself, it is still a global pressing issue which needs attention from leaders across the public and private sector.

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