“Social pollution” is a term coined by Nuria Chinchilla, professor of managing people in organisations at IESE business school in Barcelona. She came up with the phrase to describe how work stress can lead to chronic illnesses, including depression and cardiovascular disease, but also does real harm to society through the break-up of relationships and major disruption to family life.
Chinchilla has spent much of her academic career looking at workplace flexibility and the impact of work on the family and broader society. In an interview with the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2018, Chinchilla flagged her growing concern for employee wellbeing, long before the massive disruption to the workplace caused by the pandemic.
“I saw so many people having really great professional success but [becoming] terrible failures in family and social life... The lack of balance in the different areas of life has consequences not only in the personal happiness of people, but also in the company’s results and sustainability, as well as in the future of society,” she said.
Also singing from Prof Chinchilla’s hymn sheet is Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer who believes that today’s work culture is taking a huge toll on employee physical and mental health. Pfeffer put his concerns down on paper in a book called Dying for a Paycheck, (also published pre-Covid) and contends that many modern management practices are toxic to employees and detrimental to productivity and the bottom line.
Among other things they destroy engagement, increase employee turnover and push up health-related costs for companies if employees are constantly out sick and for the wider healthcare system which often ends up treating the result of workplace-related illnesses. Prof Pfeffer believes the environment we work in is just as important as the one we live in, and that workplaces need to be made healthier and better places to be.
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Fast forward to the post-Covid workplace where things seem to have only become worse. Staff shortages are pushing people to work even longer hours leading to faster burnout, the number of employees seeking help for mental health issues has jumped and many companies have seen their absenteeism and employee churn rates spike.
Prof Pfeffer says he is always surprised by how little most companies care about the health of their workforce. “When a company does care, it is more the exception than the norm,” he says, pointing out that “there is a tremendous amount of epidemiological literature that suggests that diabetes, cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome – and many health-relevant individual behaviours such as overeating and under-exercising and drug and alcohol abuse – come from stress. And there is a large amount of data that suggests the biggest source of stress is the workplace.”
This comes as little surprise to Alex Bunting, group director of therapeutic and wellbeing services at Belfast-based mental health charity and social enterprise, Inspire, which has seen growing demand from the corporate sector for its services. The all-Ireland body works with more than 100 corporates across the 32 counties, from SMEs to Government departments.
Inspire was originally set up as a mental health charity, so it’s very clued in to mental health issues in the workplace. Bunting says a good working environment is no longer just a “nice to have” – it’s something that needs to be taken very seriously and initiatives have to be driven from the top. That said, it’s incumbent on employees to do their bit to meet their employer half way.
“We are constantly seeing people under huge workplace pressure and turning to things like drugs and alcohol to cope,” he adds. “Alcohol is ingrained in our culture. It’s often part of the weekly shop and after a bad day some people will have a glass of wine to relax. But if one glass becomes two or three or a bottle then it becomes a real problem.”
Bunting says that healthier, happier staff are more likely to feel positive about achieving key performance indicators and organisational goals, and that leaders can play a big part in ensuring that they have workplace practices that support this, whether that’s keeping an eye on people to make sure they’re not working excessively long hours or putting a system in place that will provide employees with what they need in terms of support at the right level in a timely fashion.
“Managers have a major impact on people’s mental health. Indeed recent research suggests it’s higher than that of their therapist or doctor and equal to that of their partner,” he says. “Leaders need to think about leading for wellbeing. They need to align the company’s values and policies with how they actually behave because people pay close attention to what leaders say and then what they do.”
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The Inspire team works with managers to help them become more mental health and stress aware so they lean to recognise people’s triggers and how they play out in their behaviour. They also spend time with the HR and/or senior management team developing a needs analysis based on data the company has around causes of absenteeism for example.
Bunting says that in an ideal world what’s needed is a strategy that prevents problems from starting in the first place. However, if it’s too late for that then it’s all about making the right intervention at the right time and having a recovery plan for how staff who have experienced a work-related illness are successfully reintegrated into the organisation.