Francois Barton: Toxic workplaces need to change for employees’ mental health


Imagine a business where live electrical wires dangle from the roof, and staff regularly suffer shocks and burns from coming into contact with them. In fact, they get hurt so often that a nurse comes on site every Wednesday to dress their wounds and the company offers subsidised health insurance to cover private treatment for more serious injuries. But never fixes the wires.

That scenario sounds crazy. Surely, no business would behave like that – bandaging people up then putting them back into the same, dangerous environment?

When it comes to dealing with mental wellbeing at work, that scenario reflects the sobering reality in many New Zealand workplaces. There is plenty of evidence that work is harming the mental wellbeing of some Kiwis and is costing our businesses money.

For example, the NZ Herald recently reported on a survey by Sydney-based payroll software provider Elmo, which found that 40 per cent of New Zealand workers reported feeling burnout in the past three months. Twenty-seven per cent reported feeling overwhelmed at work.

A NZ Wellness in the Workplace survey found absenteeism due to work-related stress increased to 22 per cent in 2018, from 6 per cent in 2016. UK research shows mental health is responsible for more sickness absence than any other condition, and the situation is likely to be similar here.

Many businesses have initiatives to support the mental wellbeing of their staff – and good on them for that. But in many cases these initiatives focus on “fixing” individuals or building up their resilience.

However, offering free yoga on Monday and fruit on Friday won’t protect people if they continue to work in environments that contribute to harming their mental wellbeing. To get sustained improvement you also need to “fix” the environment.

Recent research commissioned by the forum suggests that the best way businesses can protect their people from work-related harm to mental wellbeing is to focus on creating “good work” and eliminating “toxic work”.

That requires identifying factors at work that might be harming people’s mental wellbeing – such as excessive workloads; dysfunctional work relations; or unfair contract conditions – and then coming up with ways to redesign the work to eliminate these factors or to reduce their impact.This process will also identify positive factors that are supporting people’s mental wellbeing – such as flexible working arrangements, well-paced work and clear communications. This gives businesses an opportunity to redesign and “bake in” these protective factors into the work.

Obviously, this process needs to be done with extensive input from the people actually doing the work.

Suggesting that businesses redesign how they work to protect people’s mental wellbeing is no small ask. It has operational and financial implications, so requires a mandate from the top and support from CEOs, directors and other senior leaders. This is not work that can just be left to the HR departments that traditionally are responsible for wellbeing initiatives. And it needs to be done with a genuine commitment to change, otherwise the whole process will stall at the first jump.

But the promised payback for businesses come in the form of higher productivity due to reduced work-related illness, more positive worker engagement and attitudes, better decision-making and more collaborative working relationships.

To support businesses the forum has just published free guidance for CEOs and their organisations called Protecting Mental Wellbeing at Work.

The guide includes a process to help businesses work with their staff to identify things that can harm or support mental wellbeing at work. They can then use this information to come up with different ways of working that promote “good work” and eliminate “toxic work”.

The guide was created for the forum by organisational psychologist Dr Hillary Bennett of Leading Safety and the process has been extensively tested on forum member businesses.

Stepping into this space might be an uncomfortable exercise for many business leaders. It could well shine a light on issues that are not easy to deal with. But the reality is that those issues are there regardless of whether you choose to surface them. They are impacting on your people and business performance in the form of high turnover rates, absenteeism, and other performance issues.

The advantage of understanding what’s really going on in your business is that it helps you make better decisions about your investment in wellbeing initiatives. For example, some of the money you are spending on wellbeing initiatives might be better spent on hiring an extra staff member.

Or, using my extreme scenario, you might decide to pay an electrician to come in and fix the wires, rather than buying more bandages.

• Francois Barton is the executive director of theBusiness Leaders’ Health and Safety Forum.

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