A diverse group of SIOP members are serving as Trend Champions for the people-related work trends that SIOP members collaboratively predicted to be the most impactful in 2022. Each Trend Champion has expertise in and professional passion for their trend subject. SIOP appreciates their service to the profession in providing quarterly updates on their chosen topics.
Find the full list of topics and links to the other Top 10 Work Trends here.
According to Forbes, “Rates of burnout, anxiety, and depression are at record levels” (Cording, Jan 16, 2023). In fact, Aflac found that more employees are more burnt out now than have been since the beginning of the pandemic. This may explain the recent focus on burnout explicitly in the popular press (e.g., Forbes, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times). In response, we’re seeing a greater emphasis placed on the system/culture-level issues that impact employee mental health than we have previously.
For example, McKinsey has cofounded a movement that focuses on employee wellbeing and one of the key points they highlight is that individual, bandaid-type interventions are not going to solve issues surrounding mental health. Similarly, Benefits Pro highlights culture and community as key points of intervention for employee wellbeing, moving forward. SIOP member, Ludmila Praslova published a piece in Harvard Business Review really hammering home this point. A recent article by Tuckey et al. gives an example of how to approach a traditionally individual-level work stressor (i.e., workplace bullying) from an organizational level. Similarly, Regina & Allen highlight how masculinity contest culture is associated with emotional exhaustion, something organizations can hardly afford right now. Together, we’re seeing a shift away from emphasizing individual interventions in favor of system-level changes.
One key system-level change that has been frequently discussed as of late, is improving employee pay. The need for fair and competitive pay has been highlighted by outlets like Fortune, CEO Magazine, and HRZone, with the latter aptly stating “If you don’t support the financial wellbeing of your people, you aren’t actually supporting their wellbeing at all”. A recent report by Zellis found that only 12% of employees say their employer is very effective at supporting their financial wellbeing. Fa-Kaji et al. recently published an article in Occupational Health Science focused on financial stress and the protective effect of resiliency. Looking at a broader level, Van Egdom et al. published an article about the negative impact of corporate cost-cutting announcements (which we’re now seeing frequently).
Of course, this push to improve employee wellbeing comes with a push to track employee wellbeing. Thus, concerns about privacy and personal boundaries being violated by employers trying to track and improve employee mental health are also increasingly being discussed (e.g., McRae et al., Jan 18, 2023). This may be particularly poignant given that AI is being used to detect depression, anxiety, and burnout (Berwick & Smith, January 18, 2023) which many individuals may neither consent to nor feel comfortable with. For example, a recent study published in Applied Ergonomics found that using smart devices and algorithms to monitor employee mental workload, although expected to boost employee wellbeing, came with serious concerns about the privacy of employees (Pütz et al., 2022).
Employee mental health remains a main issue in workplace discussions as companies grapple with continued efforts to return to the office and recent trends in “quiet quitting.”
First, looking at returning to the office, we see that this discussion has become even more nuanced as companies have had longer to grapple with this question. One specific issue that has been raised, is that of equity in returning to the office. In a hybrid setup, workers who are in the office less than others, tend to suffer a social penalty that can harm career advancement and other similar outcomes. But, according to Tsedal Neeley in an interview with Adam Grant, many employees of color show a stronger preference for hybrid or remote work, due in part to a reduced exposure to microaggressions at work. Microaggressions in the workplace, therefore, have received attention in the applied world as well as in some recent publications by SIOP members (e.g., King et al., 2022). There does not seem to be a simple solution moving forward, but clearly steps to make the workplace (be it virtual or in-person) more psychologically safe for every employee is necessary to ensure an effective return to the office.
Second, we have seen a lot in the recent weeks, about “quiet quitting” (i.e., not engaging in organizational citizenship behaviors, and possibly engaging in production deviance) and “quiet firing” (i.e., intentionally causing overload and reducing access to resources for specific employees with the desired result of the employee willingly turning over). These both have clear ties to employee mental health and wellbeing. Digging back into the archives, we’ve had clear evidence that OCBs are linked to overload, stress, fatigue, and work family conflict for nearly two decades (e.g., Bolino & Turnley, 2005; Bolino et al, 2015; Eatough et al., 2011). We should expect this trend of withdrawal behaviors to continue as a method of employees protecting their own mental health in response to a lack of organizational policies and procedures that value employee mental health.
Last, it’s worth pointing out that Mental Health America recently released a Workplace Mental Health Toolkit. It’s a valuable resource for both applied and academic I-Os who are interested in employee mental health as it includes some basic frequency statistics, a case study, a list of a wide range of resources and partnering organizations, and best practices surrounding protecting employee mental health, many of which derive from I-O and occupational health psychology.
The trend of employee mental health being a key talking point has not slowed down at all. Some key concerns that have been highlighted in recent news coverage are removing the stigma around disclosure and the use of accommodations or benefits and a shift toward corporate responsibility for employee mental health. 58% of employees are not comfortable discussing their mental health in the workplace, but 81% of employees believe employers have an obligation to prioritize employee mental health (Skiera, 2022).
When looking at removing stigma and increasing accommodations use and access, it’s first important to note that mental health disorders are the second greatest cause of workplace disability after back/neck problems, ahead of arthritis (Theis et al., 2018). However, people don’t disclose it because of a fear of exclusion or discrimination, it’s not the norm, or a sense of privacy (Raggins et al., 2007; MacDonald-Wilson et al., 2011). Barth and Wessell recently published a paper on the disclosure of mental illness in the workplace and found that downplaying symptoms or severity is problematic and that support from colleagues is important, and that unsupportive behaviors like insulting, denial, avoiding, denying assistance, or rejection are particularly problematic. Relatedly, a study found if you have a lot of work demands, using your voice may get you the support you need (Liu, Zheng, Ni, Harms, 2022).
When shifting the focus of employee mental health from employee behavior to organizational and societal behavior we see a call to again reduce stigma, create a psychologically safe culture, provide financial security (financial stress is reported as the leading cause of anxiety and stress), and actually encourage taking time off to recover (Delony, 2022). Companies can pay for employees to volunteer together during company time as it’s been linked with reduced depression (Pfeffer, Singer, Stepanek, 2022). Companies can also take steps to improve work schedule quality since it impacts sleep, fatigue, and depression (Dugan et al., 2022). There’s actually a really cool study going on right now looking at a policy requiring companies to compensate employees for unpredictable scheduling (Ananat et al.). Also, companies can avoid dehumanizing employees and treating them like replaceable cogs in a wheel as it can thwart your psychological needs (Lagios et al., 2022; Nguyen, Besson, Stinglhamber, 2022), and needs thwarting is associated with anxiety and bad sleep (Niemiec et al., 2022). Companies also may use their HR data to identify people who are at risk of suicidal ideation (Hastuti & Timming, 2022) to intervene and provide access to care.
Ariana Huffington (a champion of employee mental health who has partnered with SHRM to push for this issue) put it best in a recent interview with Fast Company “We’re all brought up thinking that burnout is the price of success. That’s a collective delusion. It’s not based on science or data.”
Employee mental health has continued to be a predominant talking point in both political and business circles, particularly the mental health of healthcare workers. Some highlight returning to work, ongoing COVID-related concerns, and long-COVID symptoms as causes of mental health issues, others have highlighted the conflict in Ukraine as another source of anxiety and distress.
One major advancement at the political level is the passage of the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act to provide grants to “promote mental health and resiliency among health care providers”. Additionally, President Biden has proposed an increased focus on mental health, broadly, including an increased provision to telehealth for behavioral health, which has played a large role during the COVID-19 pandemic (Rae et al., 2022) and is expected to continue benefitting employee mental health in the future (Jerich, 2022). I-O psychology may seek to explore how employer-provided telehealth access improves worker wellbeing as well as productivity.
At the organizational level, there is a clear disconnect that must be addressed. According to results from the 2021 employer mental health report card, employees gave their employers an average score of 4.4/10 on mental health support, but employers give themselves a 7.6. Some suggestions in business media are to change company culture to remove the stigma around mental health, improve communication, train leaders on mental health challenges, provide access to mental health experts (including staff therapists), build employee mental health into company metrics, over-communicating resources, and foster flexibility and inclusivity (Greenwood, 2022a; Schwantes, 2022; Wilensky, 2022). All of which I-O psychology can aid in implementing or evaluating.
On the other hand, the discussion around individual employee mental health has focused on strategies to protect and promote one’s own mental health. Two main thrusts have been about starting the conversation with the employer about one’s own mental health (Greenwood, 2022b; Smith & Tagle, 2022 ), and the beneficial role of exercise (Chan, 2022; Nave, 2022).
And last, the role of remote work in employee mental health continues to be a major topic of conversation (Norman, 2022; Safety & Health Magazine, 2022). Research suggests it was particularly during COVID-19 if you already had a mental health condition (Platts et al., 2022).
Recent related I-O research findings include: work-family policies are linked to better mental health (Li & Wang, 2022); companies have data that can help identify people at risk of suicidal ideation (Hastuti & Timming, 2022); and volunteering with coworkers is linked to improved mental health and decreased depression (Singer & Stepanek, 2022).
Champion: Keaton Fletcher, PhD
Keaton Fletcher is an assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Psychology. His research focuses on workplace leadership and wellbeing, answering questions like "How does becoming a leader impact your wellbeing?", "How does interacting with your leader affect your daily health behaviors?", "What physiological phenomena predict becoming a leader". He co-hosts the “Healthy Work” podcast (@healthyworkpod), which shares the science of making work a healthier experience for everyone. He is married to another I-O psychologist, and together they have two children.
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