Written by: Mark Hirschfeld, Vice President, Consulting Services and Strategic Partnerships, BI WORLDWIDE; Brad Shuck, Ph.D., Professor of Human Resources and Organizational Development, University of Louisville, Co-Founder, OrgVitals
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“I have a mental illness known commonly as depression. I take medication (Prozac) which slows the re-absorption and extends my brain’s serotonin bath. Consequently, I feel better.
I’m not weak or fragile. It’s pure biochemistry.
I am neither proud nor ashamed that I am, by definition, mentally ill. What we ALL need to be concerned about is that unlike physical illness, mental illness continues to carry a stigma that leads many not to confront it...or talk about it...or ask about it.”
Tom’s thoughtful and heartfelt story resonates with those of us who have or know someone with a mental illness.
The stigma surrounding mental illnesses, compared to physical conditions, plagues our society and, in many cases, our work communities. According to one study, when asked to consider their comfort level in discussing their own mental health with friends, family and employers, people reported being mostly uncomfortable.
56% say they’d be uncomfortable talking to friends and family about it, and 84% say they’d be uncomfortable talking to their employer.ii
This must change.
Here’s where Tom’s story, to us, gets a bit more interesting—he is a recently retired salesperson and regional manager. This message was posted (with his permission) on the company intranet of his employer.
“PLEASE keep your senses tuned to your own feelings and into the comments and behaviors of those you love... and be proactive in asking them how they are feeling. With tele-therapy on the rise and (our) employee assistance program, it’s never been easier to get help.”
Tom was the exception to the rule—his workplace gave him a platform to tell his story and, importantly, feel fully included. Tom was successful because he could belong and knew his purpose. He was supported and part of an organization that valued him.
We were interested in an employer who would endorse Tom’s message and post it on an all-company platform and it led us to ask...
A group of researchers at the University of Louisville took on this question. In a recently published study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the research team showed that workplace culture – specifically, how someone feels like they belong, or how isolated they feel at work – could influence a biological response. Using catecholamines and their metabolites as biomarkers of sympathetic nervous system activity, the research team asked participants about their unique experiences of work and tracked their overall work experience.
It turns out, work and organizational culture has a significant impact on our physical and mental health. Those who worked in environments where they were engaged and part of a community were less likely to show biomarkers that influence heart disease, hypertension and depression, among other mental and physical challenges. But the opposite was also true. Participants who felt isolated, disconnected and disengaged showed increased and elevated levels of biomarkers that influenced physical and mental illness, both in the present moment as well as in the future.
A study conducted by McKinsey & Companyiii highlights yet another business issues—those who struggle with mental health and well-being challenges are more likely to look for another employer:
In a report published last year, the U.S. Surgeon General sees an opportunity to create workplaces that support the health and wellbeing of employees:
It seems, based on these results, culture can play a significant and important role in supporting employee health and wellbeing in measurable, tangible ways. What an uplifting and hopeful finding.
For the last decade BI WORLDWIDE has been studying the factors that create engaging, inspiring workplaces, using a model called “The New Rules of Engagement.” Here is a short description of the factors measured in the model (click to enlarge):
In a study conducted last year to update the “New Rules” insights, a representative sample of employees across North America were asked if they felt their workplace supported a healthy lifestyle. Here’s a summary of what they felt their employer was delivering in terms of their employee experience that correlated with their feeling on whether their company supported a healthy lifestyle:
Here are additional details, supported by the math behind the observations. According to BI WORLDWIDE’s Research Director Rob Mezera:
And a culture that values certain outcomes really matters.
We hope this provides a roadmap for employers to improve their “healthy lifestyle” culture. Culture matters in not only creating and sustaining a productive, inspiring workplace, but one where employees like Tom can showcase their talents and skills and, in doing so, meaningfully contribute.
The Toms of the world need us. And we desperately need the Toms of the world to bring all their gifts to work.
Let’s not let them down.