There is no stronger human reaction than the one you have when you feel threatened. As I see it, a lot of people feel threatened now, by changes in society, legal rights, and a general sense of prevalent danger, including the new highly contagious strains of covid and now Monkey Pox—a concern I heard from a major corporate customer this week. Rates of anger, anxiety, and aggression are accelerating—for the third consecutive year. In Gallup’s 2022 workforce poll, 44% of the world’s employees experienced anxiety, anger and/or sadness a lot of the previous day. The Harvard Business Review, once the resource for ideas like just-in-time manufacturing, just published an article on How to Manage Your Anger at Work.
The latest Mercer Report shows that 81% of workers are burned out. Employers are struggling with high rates of mental health issues and continued shortages of practitioners, causing staggering wait times for employees and their families.
Starbucks last week announced they were closing stores in five cities due to incidents that make it unsafe to operate. As Starbucks said, Employees are “seeing firsthand the challenges facing our communities—personal safety, racism, lack of access to healthcare, a growing mental health crisis, rising drug use, and more,” they wrote, adding that “with stores in thousands of communities across the country, we know these challenges can, at times, play out within our stores too.”
With violence at schools, concerts, baseball games (one directly involving one of my employees and her family), stores and now airports, fear of safety is factoring into daily decisions—and this inevitably permeates the workplace atmosphere.
I bring this up not as a commentator on business trends and culture but as a longtime leader in the field of human well-being, especially as it impacts our workforces. These accelerating trends are now the new normal in our lives and thus as business leaders we must recognize and reckon with the reality that effective mental health support—preventive and clinical—is now a core talent strategy and an essential for business success. Why? Because the cultural forces at play are impacting workers. Incidents that seemed like distant, unlikely tragedies may now feel much more real—that is certainly true in my company. And that feeling is universal. We are all becoming just a couple of degrees of separation from these events and this will take a toll on business progress and opportunity.
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What can business leaders do? Plenty. This is a moment for leaders to focus on the welfare of their workforces and speak out about the society we all live in. It is our work to do: Employees still trust their employers more than any other institution (government, media, etc.). And while our immediate instinct might be to simply lower the temperature and get back to work, simply asking people to calm down may leave people thinking you don’t understand them or the peril they feel. It’s a time to be hyper-vigilant about what’s actually going on with your workforce. Three suggestions:
- Get a regular read on the stress, work/life balance, burnout and engagement metrics of your people.
- Leverage those insights to make adjustments to policy and resources to address physical and psychological safety.
- Support people preventively: The whole team needs the psychological skills to handle their stress in productive ways and be able to identify and reach out to a team member who is struggling. A workforce can be a force for growth through the hardest times. Offer support without false reassurance that the threats to personal welfare and rights are not serious.
The thing about anxiety and anger that grows to aggression is that it is no longer an individual challenge to manage, it is a collective challenge. We need to help our teams get in front of problems so they can get behind opportunities.