Can the dreaded compliance meeting save our workforce from a mental-health crisis?

Stress has reached crisis levels, and there’s an unlikely fix from the corporate world.
Stress has reached crisis levels, and there’s an unlikely fix from the corporate world.
Image: Reuters/Paul Burrows
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Traditionally, business leaders have seen learning and development and mental health as two entirely unrelated issues. But what if two of the most profound challenges stymieing businesses can be solved in one fell swoop?

Our workers are suffering from more stress and worry than ever before. And it’s taking a toll on all of us. Americans are now among the most stressed people in the world according to Gallup, with more than half (55%) reporting they experience stress for much of each workday, and 45% saying they feel worried “a lot” every day.

These negative emotions can slow business productivity and increase absenteeism. From a business standpoint, they eat away at the bottom line. Chronic stress can also lead to depression and/or substance abuse, which additionally costs US businesses hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

A hard sell on soft skills

Most of us are well aware of the colossal challenge companies around the world face today when it comes to the skills gap and reskilling our workforces. As workplace analyst Josh Bersin and I wrote earlier this year in the Harvard Business Review, a whopping 80% American of CEOs feel their biggest challenge is the need for new skills.

But in spite of this concern, business leaders are not providing the kinds of learning opportunities employees crave, and workplace learning and development initiatives are not keeping up with the needs of today’s businesses. While 86% of workers say training is important to them, only about half (52%, according to one survey) think their employer provides adequate training.

As companies try to figure out how to provide better resources and more time for staff to learn new skills, it’s become apparent that we don’t need to limit workers to training for so-called hard skills, like mastering a new software program or getting certified in data analysis.

More business leaders are now looking at soft skills, such as critical thinking and creative problem solving, as a core resource. In fact, 57% of senior leaders say soft skills are more important than hard skills; soft skills are fast becoming essential skills. These essential skills are broad, but they help bring into focus objectives such as workplace happiness, personal fulfillment, and importantly, stress management. I’ve had more and more leaders in my own company ask me how they can provide resources for employees to learn how to manage stress better.

My company,  Filtered, uses artificial intelligence to make tailored recommendations for workplace learning. People who use our products want our algorithms to specifically recommend content that addresses a growing workplace stress crisis.

These leaders want their workers trained not just to improve their own mental health, but to also become more attuned and equipped to look out for the mental and emotional wellbeing of their colleagues.

The information is out there. We recommend resources like this TED Talk from psychologist Kelly McGonigal about turning stress into a friend; a School of Life video explaining the imposter syndrome; and a New Yorker article about how to become more resilient.

We hear heart-warming stories of the positive emotional—and productive—impact of this kind of material all the time. My colleagues and I have noticed this desire to find a whole new approach to corporate learning and development, and it’s exciting and encouraging to see it unfold.

Rethinking learning & development

For the most part, the onus has been on an individual employee to seek out these resources independently and on personal time, as a means to treat emotional and mental health symptoms of a job or work environment.

But that’s not enough. We need this to be embedded in required office training.

Learning and development gets a bad rap, earned through decades of failure to provide the kinds of learning experiences that employees actually need or desire. As Quartz reported in 2016, “Companies are so bad at helping workers develop their careers, most are training themselves.”

In many sectors, learning and development still revolves around the dreaded compliance meeting—the mandated courses that HR or legal teams insist employees attend or click through in an online questionnaire.

But as companies start to embrace the idea that employees can—and should—spend time learning at work, we’re seeing new learning and development programs emerge.

This means a much wider array of issues are starting to make the cut for required office training. And mental health and stress management are edging their way to center stage.

In the words of leaders from mental health non-profit Mind Share Partners, “Mental health training is not compliance training—it’s culture-change training.”

I would take this a step further, and argue that the time has come to make best mental health practices, i.e. “culture-change training” a required skill for any team.

As part of this vision, I recommend requiring training on how to promote mental health awareness across an organization and how anyone, managers in particular, can offer support. This kind of training could also reduce stigma surrounding mental health issues and help ensure confidentiality when people share personal experiences at work.

When a business commits to making mental health management a vital part of its operations, it reaps enormous benefits, including greater efficacy and workplace satisfaction among employees.

It all boils down to a pretty simple equation. When employees get these kinds of opportunities, their emotional wellness gets a big boost. Employees who spend time learning at work are 47% less likely to be stressed and 21% more likely to feel confident and happy. When emotional wellness is prioritized and people are thriving, a person’s performance at work improves.

Most of us never learned these skills by the time we made it to the workforce. It’s time we do.