Alyson Meister, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD, explains how today’s leaders should demonstrate humanity, agility, and the ability to bounce back from adversity as they seek to strengthen their workforces in turbulent times.
The statistics make for grim reading. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that instances of depression and anxiety have increased by 25% in the past few years; suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among 15-to-29-year-olds in the US; and, already prior to COVID-19, nearly half of all chronic sick leave at work was due to mental-health-related issues. In the UK, stress, depression, or anxiety account for 44% of all work-related ill health cases and 54% of all working days lost due to ill health.
Moreover, mental illness makes no distinction on grounds of age or seniority in respect of whom it affects. Research from Deloitte has found that more than three-quarters of C-suite executives (76%) feel that the pandemic has negatively affected their well-being, while 73% report that their job doesn’t allow them to take time off and disconnect. The Japanese even have a word for it – karoshi – which translates into “death by overwork.”
The scale of the problem is such that there is now a clamor for change at nation-state level. In 2022, for example, the WHO, the Surgeon General of the United States, and the EU (among others), released urgent calls for employers to take the health and well-being of their employees seriously. In one notable response, the UAE adopted a 4.5-day working week for public-sector employees, and launched a well-being council to encourage initiatives such as flexible hours and mental health counselling for staff.
Paradoxically, the public disclosure of a slew of disquieting statistics has a silver lining as it indicates a rising awareness of the importance of resilience and well-being at work, with a number of high-profile figures – from sports stars such as England cricket captain Ben Stokes to former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and, most recently, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – willing to acknowledge publicly the toll their respective roles have taken on their mental health, to the point where they have stepped away from them either temporarily or permanently. As Ardern stated in her resignation speech: “I know what this job takes. And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice.”
How have we got here?
The pressures on mental health and well-being are manifold, putting the resilience of individuals to a severe test. Highly disruptive and destabilizing factors such as the pandemic and war in Ukraine have given rise to a period of turbulent, continuous change. This has brought an alarming level of uncertainty; navigating this period without succumbing to “change fatigue” demands a high degree of resilience.
A more “home-grown” issue is our inability to disconnect from work. Countless studies have shown, for example, that checking our smartphone screen triggers the release of dopamine in our brains, giving us a chemical reward each time we look at a notification. We check emails whenever they arrive, whether in working hours or when we’re already in bed. The post-pandemic trend for working from home has blurred the boundaries further, promoting an “always-on” mindset.
Research from business-support company, NordVPN Teams, shows that, on average, home-working employees in the UK, Austria, Canada, and the US are logged on for two hours longer than prior to the pandemic. UK workers have increased their working week by 25%. With constant access to work and the tools necessary to do it, and a never-ending stream of work-related requests, it is hard to walk away.