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Why mental fitness is of strategic importance

March 16, 2021 - 12 min read


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The high cost of poor mental health

How employee mental health affects the bottom line

How employee mental health affects the top line

An addressable problem

Most of the workforce is not thinking, feeling, or performing at their best. They suffer distress, exhaustion, and other negative symptoms from the day-to-day. It has a human toll and an impact on performance. 

In part 1 of our series Stuck in the middle: what is lost in a workforce that isn’t ill but isn’t well, we described the 57% of employees who are not mentally ill but are “languishing” — defined as the absence of mental health, characterized by dissatisfaction, lack of engagement or excitement, apathy, and loss of interest. 

We also described the risk that an additional 35% of employees, who are currently “in a good place” but do not have excellent mental strength, could slide down into lower mental health under the accumulating stress of ongoing uncertainty, constant change, and remote conditions.

The high cost of poor mental health

The human toll of languishing is high. Burnout and exhaustion hurt the person physically and emotionally and damages their relationships with loved ones in incalculable ways.

Equally poignant and difficult to pin down is the lost and wasted potential of all of those people languishing in the middle. What might they be capable of? What problems could they solve? Ultimately, these costs to the individual affect our communities and organizations.

Poor mental health and well-being come at a high cost for companies as well. The most obvious are health care costs and lost productivity for the individual and the team. The drag on management attention and HR resources is often overlooked in this calculation. Less obvious but with far-reaching consequences for companies’ competitive positioning are the costs of lost innovation, agility, and ability to execute new strategies.

How can precision support help build a thriving, mentally fit workforce?

How employee mental health affects the bottom line

Health care. The direct costs of mental health care for US employers are estimated to be $78B, largely in clinical care. Mckinsey recently reported that mental and behavioral health issues cost the economy directly and are a contributor to other chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and musculoskeletal issues that drive up health care costs and usage and lead to absenteeism and lost productivity. 

Productivity. Even without clinical mental illness or chronic disease, poor mental health--the languishing of the massive middle—is associated with additional absenteeism, presenteeism, and lost productivity. Our research found that employees with the best mental health had 56% fewer missed days for health reasons, were 5X more likely to be rated a top performer, and had 25% higher productivity and 34% higher engagement than those struggling with mental health. These costs to US employers are estimated to be 3X the costs of mental illness, as much as $236B. 

It’s hard to imagine being productive when your daily experience is languishing. Workers struggling with mental health report: 

  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Taking longer to do tasks 
  • Difficulty thinking, reasoning, or deciding 
  • Putting off challenging work 
  • Difficulty juggling tasks or responsibilities

Team Productivity. When one person is languishing, it also puts a burden on everyone who has to pick up the slack to get work done or whose own ability to work is compromised amid missed deadlines and misalignment. Now what happens when most of your team, say 57%, is languishing?

Most managers probably take it for granted at this point, but imagine what your team could do or how different it could feel if everyone was feeling and working at their best? 

Management Attention. Another significant and unaccounted cost is on managers, supervisors, and HR. When a team has several people languishing — as statistically many will — the potential for interpersonal conflicts, escalating tensions, and unproductive behavior increases. It’s always been easy to misinterpret an email or get bent out of shape by a critical comment in a meeting— that does not get better when everyone on that zoom call is “more emotionally exhausted, more sad, more irritable, not sleeping…”

Languishing can cut a wide swath and consume management (and HR) attention. In the Qualtrics study, 35.6% of those who reported low mental health said they’d take their concerns to a co-worker and 33.5 to a manager or supervisor versus 19% who would take their struggles to HR.

"However, it isn’t just about avoiding the costs associated with poor employee mental health. The state of employees’ mental health has far-reaching consequences for the organization way beyond just helping your employees feel better."

When people are suffering this way, they cannot be the adaptable, resourceful, innovative or even dependable workers you need - at a time when companies need that even more.

How employee mental health affects the top line

Mental strength is critical for companies that want to move deliberately toward the future and have the position and agility to innovate, adapt, and outperform others. It is a key piece of workforce readiness, ensuring that employees are best-prepared to navigate the sprint-endurance combo of uncertainty and constant change.

Why is mental health of such strategic importance? Two reasons: first, as we shift further into a future that is characterized by lack of predictability, rapidly advancing technology, and hyper-connectivity, companies are under more performance pressure. Staying relevant and competitive requires people performing at their peak to create products and services that will be valuable to ever-more demanding customers and provide value and differentiation for the company. Technology alone can’t do that. Many companies like to say their people are their biggest asset, but it is increasingly true as companies seek to strengthen relationships and customer loyalty. 

Second, this type of workplace new demands on employees. We’re asking way more of them than just to get through tasks efficiently or not get bent out of shape from an email. The work that people do (versus machines) is becoming more ambiguous and often requires working interdependently with a wider array of collaborators (because the problems are more complex than one person can handle — no single person will have all the knowledge or resources needed). All of this work takes place in a tech-enabled environment where the tools, methods, and requirements change constantly. In addition, now we’re asking for all of that to happen in a remote, distributed environment where people don’t necessarily have the physical cues and social bonds to help them orient and coordinate. 

Unfortunately, the trends in employee health and well-being are on a collision course with the demands of this new world of work. 

To do this work well people are going to have to embrace the unfamiliar and uncomfortable without becoming overwhelmed or reactionary. They’ll have to be more fully human, invested in the work and with each other, constantly ready to learn, and open to change or adapt. 

For example, they’ll have to tap into their empathy and curiosity to notice what’s changed and what’s important. What does that look like day-to-day? Asking questions in a meeting or with a customer and not having an answer in our back pocket. It’s hard to want to be vulnerable and imperfect when we’re already feeling off-balance and threatened. And now imagine everyone else in that meeting is also exhausted, confused, and irritable. It might not feel like a great environment to expose what we don’t know or let go of our tried-and-true expertise or go-to tool, even when we know they no longer fit the need.  

Another way this plays out is in talent development, closing skills gaps, and ensuring access to in-demand skills. As a recent Deloitte-MIT Sloan Management Review report describes, more progressive companies are turning inward, focusing on growth and development of the workforce they have by integrating more learning into the flow of work and expanding internal mobility options. One significant hurdle is getting more employees to take advantage of talent marketplaces and other internal development opportunities. When well-being is low, it’s hard to see the upside of getting out of your comfort zone, relinquishing expertise and status, taking on potentially more work, and risking looking uninformed or foolish.

  • Constant learning means being in a constant state of readiness to learn, where failure is not just an option but a daily occurrence. It also means being able to recognize and let go of what is no longer useful. 
  • Collaborating with others means being open: to trying new approaches, to receiving new information and diverse perspectives, and to trusting others. 
  • Using human capabilities, like creativity and imagination, requires being willing to be vulnerable and imperfect, always a beginner.

These things take a lot of energy and courage. And motivation.

Energy, courage, and motivation are in short supply when you’re languishing. When people are suffering this way, they cannot be the adaptable, resourceful, innovative or even dependable workers you need —  at a time when companies need that even more.

An addressable problem

The good news is that the mental health of the “massive middle” is addressable. The skills and practices can be learned and developed to strengthen our mental core and move higher up the well-being spectrum. Mental strength is a state of thinking, feeling, and performing at your best where you have the skills needed to improve and maintain your well-being. Building this mental strength means that we’re less likely to “get injured” (slide down the well-being curve) when life takes a turn and more able to regain our higher mental state when we do fall. 

Mental strength is a state of thinking, feeling, and performing at your best where you have the skills needed to improve and maintain your well-being.

A mentally fit organization is an adaptive organization 

Employees who are thriving:

  • Lead teams that are 31% more productive
  • Have direct reports who are 78% less likely to leave voluntarily
  • Recover from setbacks 1.2x stronger
  • Are less likely to experience mental illness, saving $4,477 per person per year
  • Are 22% more satisfied with their jobs

Employees with high mental health are also:

  • 34% more engaged at work
  • 22% more creative at work
  • 24% higher social connection  
  • 28% higher meaning and purpose.
  • 65% greater happiness
  • 59% higher life satisfaction
  • 43% higher optimism

Imagine what your teams could do if every employee was feeling and performing at their best. 

In our next article, we’ll look at employee mental health through a mental fitness lens. Mental fitness is about developing the tools and skills to improve and maintain our own mental health over time. This simple reframing has powerful implications for how we approach long-term mental health as an asset for our companies, for our people, and for ourselves. 

Read more about our series: 

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Published March 16, 2021

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