Warning mental health ‘tsunami’ on horizon after pandemic takes toll on employees

Expert says a fourth wave of the pandemic is coming for employees

Warning mental health ‘tsunami’ on horizon after pandemic takes toll on employees

Even after COVID-19 has been eradicated from the region, an HR expert has warned a fourth wave of mental health problems are on the horizon for employees. The combination of increased work pressure, longer hours and a blurring of work/home boundaries will all contribute to the ‘tsunami’ of psychological injury, fatigue and burnout, according to Gartner VP of research & advisory, Aaron McEwan.

Speaking to HRD, McEwan said the buoyancy of the current jobs market and the high level of employee churn is only adding to the already excessive workloads faced by many employees.

“What we see all the time is people will leave the company but the organisation will avoid replacing them, which is going to exacerbate the already overworked and fatigued people who are left,” he said.

“The real risk here is around inadequately resourced teams and people being directly impacted by their crushing workload.”

Read more: Men still face stigma around getting help for mental health at work: Study

In an Australian first, an employee recently won a worker’s compensation claim after suffering a psychological injury because of his excessive workload. Published last month, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal of Australia found in favour of the employee who had suffered burnout, anxiety and depression as a result of his employment. During a six month period, his flex balance almost tripled, from 25 hours to 72.

Similarly in the UK, an employee recently sued her employer for unfair dismissal after the organisation failed to address her excessive workload despite her worsening mental health. The university lecturer repeatedly told her employer she couldn’t cope and was experiencing a breakdown as a result of her workload, the tribunal heard. It ruled occupational health had not been brought in early enough, awarding the worker almost $310,000 (AUD) in compensation.

Anecdotal evidence is that excessive workloads are becoming a serious issue in Australia too. McEwan said as well as addressing inadequate staffing levels, organisations need to rethink how they approach psychological safety.

“We’re beginning to see the emergence of psychological health being treated in the same way as physical safety,” he said. “So, that also implies that like what is already enshrined in the legislation for physical health, company directors will also have a duty of care in terms of creating a psychologically safe environment.

“I think that the responsibility is on them to educate their employees about what psychological safety looks like, reshape the environment to make it safe and deploy active measures to prevent injuries from occurring.”

Read more: Bumble CEO gives all employees the week off to fight burnout

But McEwan stressed that in a post-pandemic world, offering EAP and yoga sessions is not enough. Organisations must address the staffing structures that are leading to excessive workloads, rather than simply doing more with less.

In a society where working overtime is glorified and worn as a badge of honour, it’s up to people leaders to lead by example and step in when they see their team members clocking excessive hours. With the sophisticated level of technology in use today, it’s never been easier to keep an eye on how late or early employees are working. But it’s up to people – not machines – to foster a culture where overworking is seen as a problem, not a rite of passage. Otherwise employers will see their people becoming burnt out and disengaged, ready to quit the next time they hit breaking point.

“What we have to be really cognizant of is that when people are stretched so thin, it doesn't take much to break and businesses can't continue to operate on a model of razor thin margins,” McEwan said. “What we’re seeing is a broader trend which is about building not just resilient organisations, but robust organisations that can thrive amidst constant disruption. But as organisational leaders we just can't afford to run this outdated hyper-efficiency model of skeleton staffing if we’re going to become more resilient.”

Over the past few months we’ve seen a number of high-profile organisations shutting down for a day or a week across the entire organisation to give staff a rest. Bumble employees recently logged off en masse after the company gave staff an additional week’s paid holiday to combat burnout.

In New Zealand, Humphries Construction has given staff an extra five days sick leave allowance, encouraging them to take mental health days to fully rest and recover. Managing director Paul Humphries said encouraging employees to look after their mental health, as well as their physical health, was a win-win for everybody.

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