C'mon business - it's more than mental health!
Sometimes, it’s just better if I stay in bed. Getting up early to exercise more would be counterproductive. I know this because on the journey to become a record breaking athlete, if I trained past a certain level of fatigue I was unable to complete the quality of sessions that would, ultimately, raise my overall performance. Talk to any sports coach and they will tell you rest is as important as training and both are elements in a whole systems approach to performance that includes sleep, diet, mental wellbeing, education, rest, teamwork, training and racing.
I have just read Deloitte’s excellent report on Mental Health and Employers. It sets out very clearly the case for managing mental health in the workplace (a return of £5 for every £1 invested in managing mental health). The difficulty I have with the report is that the emphasis is on dealing with the problem of mental health rather than framing the question from a broader perspective of how do we optimise employee performance? In the last year, the hot topic in learning and development meetings has been on resilience - which too often is translated into stress management. As my colleague so often reminds me, if it is an issue of reducing stress that’s an easy fix, just ask people to do less and give them more resources. Instead, I believe the discussion should be ‘how do we help people cope better with the pressure they are under?’ rather than ‘how do we reduce that pressure?’ How do we optimise the amount of pressure an individual can cope with?
At present we have a raft of initiatives in organisations targeting different facets of individual performance whether they be dealing with mental health, dyslexia, identity, employee health and so on. Each of these is yet another initiative that employees are expected to assimilate on top of their day job. Each one seems to be framed in terms of something else to be managed and therefore in and of itself additional workload.
My proposal is we turn the thinking on its head, and our starting point should be “how do we optimise an employee’s performance?” We need to take a ‘whole systems thinking’ approach. The goal is to get the best level of performance from an individual for the money we are paying them. It has to be sustainable as the cost of recruiting new people reduces the ROI substantially. We need people engaged and around for the long term. Let’s stop seeing all these as ‘issues’ and instead see them as opportunities to refine and hone our management skills to optimise organisational performance.
Let’s start with the basics. Diet is linked to performance. So serve only healthy food in the staff canteen. Don’t just provide lunch, provide breakfast and snacks throughout the day that help people perform at their best. Make it easy for people to eat a healthy diet rather than opting for easier, unhealthy and ultimately life constraining foodstuffs. Provide opportunities to exercise, for example places to walk and meet (indoors and outside), user-friendly non-intimidating gyms, cycle to work schemes, showers and changing facilities for people riding / running / walking to work. Track employees’ activity progress and reward the efforts people make. Let’s help people be ‘fit for work’ and reduce absenteeism due to factors associated with a lack of exercise. Teach people sleep hygiene. Give people health checks to monitor things like blood pressure, cholesterol and the like to enable them to see the progress and value of the lifestyle changes encouraged by the work environment. Provide them with trackers and use apps to monitor their lifestyles. In the Deloitte report they use the term ‘Leaveism’. “Leaveism occurs when: employees utilise allocated time off, such as annual leave entitlements, flexi‑hours banked, and re‑rostered rest days, when they are in fact unwell and should be taking sick leave; employees take work home that cannot be completed within normal working hours; employees work while on leave or holiday, to catch up on their work obligations.” (p.18). Humans are not machines. Recreation time means just that ‘re-creation’, recreating ourselves ready to be able to perform at our best. Recreation is as important as work. Let’s make sure people have proper time off from work. Separate work phones from non-work phones and leave the work phone in the office at the end of the working day, or switched off in a drawer if working from home - the same for computers too. We know that people struggle with financial worries (particularly earlier in their careers) so provide some financial planning help, particularly to younger employees. If this is a source of stress that is occupying their mind preventing a focus on work, then help them feel in control so that they can focus on work. We are all different in so many ways. The needs of a dyslexic or someone suffering with an attentional deficit disorder, or someone in a wheelchair, or someone very tall or someone very short all have specific needs that if addressed will help get the best from them. These are not problems to be managed. They are simply factors to take into account, just as short rock climbers will utilise different skills than a tall rock climber with longer reach, each having an advantage over the other depending on the circumstance. This means not only helping them to get the best from themselves but helping those around them to understand the same.
So let’s focus on whole systems thinking to optimise employee performance and stop this fixation on problems to be fixed.