Workers Say Their Companies Cause Them Mental Health Problems

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie October 29, 2019
Workers Say Their Companies Cause Them Mental Health Problems

Survey after survey, study after study, indicate that an increasing number of people suffer from mental health problems at work—and sometimes because of their workplace.

One of the most recent surveys found that, on average, almost half of respondents from four different professions said their workplace culture had a negative impact on their mental health.

What's going on?

Fishbowl canvassed 4,159 professionals in accounting, management consulting, advertising and teaching and asked a simple question: "What impact does the culture at your workplace have on your mental health?" Fishbowl offers a social app for professionals that helps them converse across industries and companies.

Overall, 47.9 percent said their workplace has a negative impact on their mental health. When broken down by profession:

  • 56.7 percent of accounting professionals said the workplace has a negative impact on their mental health.
  • Nearly 51 percent of teachers said the same.
  • 49.8 percent of advertising professionals agreed.
  • 43.9 percent of consultants said the same.

What Causes Workplace Stress?

A 2019 poll by LifeWorks, an Atlanta-based company that helps companies create healthy work environments, found that for younger workers, workplace stress has a lot to do with how people communicate at work.

"I think for young people the issue of communication is sometimes difficult, because they've kind of grown up communicating on computers, and for them to reach out and talk to someone about a problem is sometimes a challenge," one respondent wrote.

Half of Millennials and 75 percent of members of Generation Z have left a job because of mental health reasons, according to a 2019 study conducted by Mind Share Partners, SAP and Qualtrics that was published in the Harvard Business Review.

So why are these mental health issues surfacing now?

Millennials often cite workplace bullying and psychological harassment as issues that have contributed to mental stress, said Paula Allen, vice president of research, analytics and innovation for Morneau Shepell Inc., the company that in 2018 acquired LifeWorks.

"A good portion of employees entering the workplace in the last five years have had a very different life experience than their predecessors," said  Kristen Ruttgaizer, director of human resources at Igloo Software, which provides companies with cloud-based digital products and is based in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. "Joining a workplace which now has expectations that a deadline means a deadline, extensions are not provided, there are winners and losers and a higher sense of accountability can come as a shock that everything isn't always a win-win situation. This can be a significant shift for some [younger workers] and a significant adjustment for the other generations that are working with them."

The LifeWorks poll found that financial pressures seem to be contributing to the mental stress of middle-aged and older workers.

"For people who are middle-aged, they have concerns about their kids going to school and going to college, and how they're going to pay for that, and what kind of job security do they have," one respondent wrote. "Older people are concerned about their health. They're concerned about their future, whether they're going to have enough money to live on when they retire. … I think despite the fact that many people think we're in a really strong economy, there's still some pressure on the middle class—where most of our mid-level management, even upper-level management are … experiencing significant pressure with rising costs of everything, which creates mental pressure."

Fishbowl CEO Matt Sunbulli says part of it may have to do with the interaction of so many different generations in the workforce

"Arguably, for the first time, there are four generations of Americans simultaneously representing themselves in the workforce: Baby Boomers, Generations X, Y and now Z," he said. "Adding even more complexity to this labor force cauldron, we have a more diverse representation of gender and minorities in the workforce. What we've seen is that from a purely demographic lens, this … presents greater opportunity for confusion and misunderstanding." 

Lack of Trust in the Workplace

Another reason for mental health issues at work may be that employees have a hard time trusting their leaders, some say. That means "trust for the employer to compensate fairly, acknowledge and fix issues, to operate a profitable company, and ultimately to communicate to employees how all of this will be accomplished," Sunbulli said.

Fishbowl has found that the perception of gender pay inequality—that women are being paid less than their male counterparts—creates a great deal of distrust in an organization. Even when payroll research reveals that women are being paid fairly, "the lack of communication and leadership from atop these companies allowed false perceptions like these to persist," he said, referring to conversations that Fishbowl's clients have had the company's site.

Others say workers' trust may erode because of the opinions and causes that their CEO or senior leaders adopt.

A 2019 Edelman poll found that 84 percent of workers in 27 countries expected CEOs to help shape public conversations about issues ranging from the economy to globalization to discrimination.

"For these organizations, the lack of a top-down mission or vision shared by leadership that could viably inform causes in the public sphere … was a driver of cultural detachment for employees," Sunbulli said.

Employee trust can also be compromised when leaders aren't open about the organization's challenges.

Fishbowl is collaborating with Harvard Business School on research that explores what happens when leaders disclose unflattering or challenging information.

"It actually creates more trust than attempting to whitewash the situation," Sunbulli said. "We consistently see that when [leaders] choose to engage their employees in a transparent way … the net effect is always overwhelmingly positive."

It's critical for CEOs, HR and managers alike to make mental health a priority if they hope to retain good workers, Allen said.

"Historically, companies have stigmatized mental health as a corporate risk," he said. "CEOs are not in tune with well-being in the workplace and are not walking the talk to put their employees first."



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