Depression and anxiety is on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) list as the leading cause of disability globally. Workplace depression costs the US economy $1 trillion dollars each year. Behind that number there are human stories of careers destroyed and family life reduced to barely functional. The WHO counts an estimated 300 million human stories world-wide – stories of undetected signals of depression, loss of value and self-worth which, in some cases, leads to suicide. Unfortunately in many workplaces, the prevailing belief is that if you are depressed you are weak. Judgments of that nature ignore that we are human with an innate need to express creative talent. Suppressing that expression is a biological cause of depression. Safe environments are essential. Understanding the deep human need for expression is fundamental to creating better workplaces. It is not rocket science but does require judgment be set aside in order to take a closer look at the dynamics.
Does the Workplace Support or Suppress Safety and Expression?
The external environment is saturated with emotional data that gets interpreted as ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’. Add the focus of your thinking, negative-positive or neutral, and your brain interprets the data to determine whether it is safe for you to be you and to express yourself in any given situation. Piling on another layer which adds or subtracts from safety is the unnoticed presence of unconscious bias embedded in interpersonal communication and decisions like pay equity, and actions. Combined, these streams of data accumulate as indirect messages about your value, place in the world and sense of belonging all of which are core to human health. That makes signals for depression subtle and cumulative as well as uniquely personal. Mandi Luis-Buckner reports in her article What I Wish I Knew signals like a sense of blurriness, guilt about letting your team down, irritability, certain tasks feel emotionally overwhelming, or fear of losing your job or your income. These and other symptoms mark the spot on the downward spiral where the heart’s energy becomes increasingly depleted. Without the heart being fully engaged, collective performance is seriously compromised. Business performance is compromised.
Understanding that the external environment and workplace interpersonal communications, combined with management and communication style, directly sets the safety for expression. Companies that manage themselves through statistics rather than collective accomplishment are guilty of creating unsafe workplaces that suppress the creative expression needed for rapid response.
What Lies Beneath the Stigma
Stigma is a judgment delivered without conscious thought. It is convenient to simply blame someone for their experience with life at work rather than looking more deeply at the drivers creating the situation. And stigma directly adds to the depressive statistics of workplace depression and loss of productivity.
The executive decision to maintain stigma toward stress-related illness adds to the high cost of workplace related depression while impairing organizational decision-making. The company is not in peak health if its employees are not in peak health.
Through the lens of mental illness, depression and anxiety are given a comforting label (at least there is some explanation for what you are experiencing). But there is something bigger at work that, when recognized, can reverse the loss of human potential, quality of life, and business sustainability by recognizing the fundamental shifts companies and individuals are being called to make.
Recognizing the Invisible Forces Creating Workplace Depression
Companies are under pressure to flexibly respond to volatile conditions, surprise interruptions to business models, and rapidly changing market conditions. When unaware routine habits relay the pressure on to employees who must work harder and faster, in unpredictable conditions while using outdated processes. Recognition of the pressure enables a rethink and a choice to think way beyond habits.
Better Response! Depression and anxiety in the workplace signal that passing it down the line is not working. Taking a collective pause to reflect, observe and sense what is going on can offer the epiphany needed to adopt a more practical and human course of action. It means getting out of your mind in order to tap into the collective intuition to gain insight.
Metrics that measure quarterly and meaningless contributions are uninspiring and barely engage the intellect much less talent. Millennial’s are not alone in wanting their jobs to provide personal growth. If a company wants to thrive in today’s world it is an imperative to engage all employees as thinkers and co-creators.
Better Response! Distribute power throughout the company for decision-making. Start with early experiments to improve communication and remove systemic blocks to contribution. You might need to go so far as to toss out a bunch of metrics that just do not matter to the customer or have no real meaning internally. Ensure that the three touchstones for engaging the power of the human spirit are cared for daily: initiative, sense of control, maintaining a positive outlook on like.
Bold decisions will be on the table: Ban bullying behaviour from all without exception for instance. Tackle unconscious bias through proven practices derived from neuroscience. Workshops to raise awareness have proven to be ineffective. Serious commitment is required. Being transparent, rebuilding trust and opening the space for talent to contribute with a clear sense of purpose demands growth on all levels.
At a personal level you can increase awareness to reverse the downward spiral into depression by being more aware of your emotional state. Observing the effect of what someone has communicated to you or how it’s been communicated allows you to notice whether the effect is upward or downward. Downward is depleting. Upward is inspiring. Downward effects have to be countered by reversing negativity into a constructive outlook on life and through looking after yourself emotionally and physically through mindfulness practices or meditation, or yoga.
Increasing Workplace Health and Business Responsiveness through Accepting Responsibility
Logically speaking, using stigma to avoid looking deeper is an ineffective way to handle the situation. However, beliefs about stress-related signals can be changed and applied to restoring organizational health. Full acceptance of responsibility for the health of the workplace can be achieved by working on the humanity of workplaces, not the metrics. Do that, and the metrics will move exponentially. You have the chance to respond responsibly.
The massive changes underway in the world show up in market conditions. The volatility will not slow down. Capacity to work with it must then speed up. There is no reset button to revert to a time more certain and predictable. This is an exciting time for humanity and for business to show that we are collectively capable of being better in the face of adversity. Dropping the stigma and finding human-based solutions is a good way to start.
Originally published on the HuffPost Great Workplace Cultures April 27, 2017
Dawna works with progressive early adopter decision makers to create a growth oriented workplace and ethical reputation. A speaker and workshop leader, she is also the author of Decision Making for Dummies and has contributed a chapter on the new purpose of business to ‘The Intelligence of the Cosmos” by systems theorist Ervin Laszlo. She hosts the Insight to Action podcast for business innovators on iTunes. Contact her through www.FromInsightToAction.com and LinkedIn.