The topic of mental health is currently stirring things up: The constant change in international labor markets, Corona, home office… There is hardly a pattern that recurs so reliably in all core topics relevant to work.
And rightly so: mental illnesses are the only group of illnesses with constantly rising illness figures. In all other disease groups, the figures are declining. The percentage of sick leave for mental health problems has increased by over 10% in the last 40 years. Today, every third person suffers from a mental illness. Added to this are the much longer periods of absence due to mental health problems: Those affected are on sick leave for almost 40 days, three times longer than for other illnesses. The Corona pandemic further potentiates the problem. According to the DAK, more people are on sick leave today than ever before because of mental health problems. All of this is happening despite much more knowledge about mental health, medical advances, and much better recognition of psychotherapy and coaching, compared to earlier times.
Why the subject of psyche concerns me so much
I have been dealing with the issue of mental health in the workplace since I began my dual studies almost exactly 10 years ago. At the time, I completed a prestigious and innovative dual degree program that involved studying at two universities in Germany and Poland and numerous internships abroad. To this day, I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity and the many special experiences I had during my studies. However, I experienced in myself and also in younger female students whose mentor I was that there was little room for our well-being and mental state. The solution was always individual measures: Talks with social workers, therapists, yoga, sports. We learned that developing mental strength was our own responsibility.
In the course, I became a manager and in 2016 I switched to occupational medicine, where I am building up a service company for occupational medicine and occupational safety together with my mother and my brother. This was followed by medical school, research on the topic, and ultimately my coaching training. Today, I have a clear vision on the topic of mental health in the workplace: I am convinced that the topic of mental health belongs at the top of the agenda in every organization and must be deeply anchored in the health management of our companies.
Mental health is the solution to many big questions
If you scroll through the major management and business magazines today, you will quickly discover: a shortage of skilled workers, rising illness figures, especially due to mental illness, difficulties with the implementation of diversity in companies, The Great Resignation. Many of the major concerns currently occupying companies are directly related to employees and their health. My thesis: If we find a new way of dealing with mental health and anchor the conditions for mental well-being in companies, many of these problems can be managed more easily. To do this, it is first important to understand what mental health is in the first place. The WHO definition is:
Mental health is a state of well-being in which a person can realize his or her capabilities, cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively, and contribute to his or her community.
In this definition we can find three important elements of mental health: Ability to act, resilience and productivity. Moreover, according to the definition, good mental health enables social participation. I believe that employees in this state could be seen as the “ideal workforce” – an empowered, resilient, and productive person who is empowered to participate socially and contribute. Who can tackle, feels comfortable and can thus draw from the full.
It is also important to me that the concept of health is not about the absence of disease. It’s all about well-being. As a systemicist, I see the most important difference here between preventing illness and promoting health: It is about creating the best possible circumstances at the system level so that employees feel well and can thus also achieve their best performance.
We need to move away from individual solutions
Those who are psychologically distressed today often wait until the last minute before they talk about their problems. The stigma is still palpable everywhere. What happens then are usually individual measures: Mindfulness training, time off to rest, vacations in the countryside. However, this does not solve the problem.
Here’s an example:
- An employee is on sick leave due to psychological problems. In many companies, there is a lack of openness towards the subject, as a result of which the person concerned simply hands in the sick bill instead of stating the reason for the absence from work.
- The remaining colleagues have to absorb the loss internally, and the workload increases.
- The company now regularly receives a new sick note. Let me remind you again: On average, this person will be absent from work for 40 days: That’s two months of inability to work.
- The longer this state of affairs continues, the more the stress in the college increases. It is becoming increasingly difficult to compensate for the shortfall.
- In addition, the potential for conflict increases, team spirit decreases and communication becomes heated. In short, after a few weeks, everyone is stressed and overworked.
- After two months, the colleague finally comes back! The condition is moderate, probably he*s going to be in therapy for a while. Maybe he*she will start part-time for the time being in order to slowly get used to it again. This can be difficult: Especially in positions of high responsibility, there is often the expectation that the colleague will directly pick up all loose threads that have arisen due to the absence.
- The result is preprogrammed: It is a question of time until he*she will fail again. Psychosocial stress at work has increased rather than decreased in the meantime, and the old difficulties that contributed to the failure have probably not been resolved either.
Systemic strategies are needed to break the downward trend
In companies where many employees drop out, quit or are quickly terminated due to mental illness, there is a systemic problem. Often women are also affected by these difficulties, because unfortunately they are still twice as often affected by mental health problems as men. The younger generations in particular – Millennials and Gen Z – are no longer putting up with this, as the Great Resignation clearly shows. Organizations that do not put the topic of psyche at the top of their agenda will have great difficulty in retaining their skilled employees in the coming years.
Every well-trained worker in Germany today has a job. This means that it is no longer up to the job seeker to convince the employer of his or her merits; instead, it must be the other way around. Exactly how depends, again, heavily on the size and nature of the organization. Systematics and approaches exist for this purpose, which can range from the classic stress-strain model to diversity training. Companies that can demonstrate a health-promoting work culture will be the winners in the future and can look forward to productive and satisfied employees who can make the most of their abilities.
I can hardly wait!
About the author
Marlene firmly believes that a human, inclusive economy is more productive and profitable. If you want to revolutionise your industry today, you will have to look after your greatest resource: Employees! She approaches this topic from different perspectives: Marlene is a certified systemic consultant and business coach with an additional focus on systemic organisational consulting and organisational development. She studied business and medicine at renowned universities, including the University of Groningen and Cambridge. She is also part of the management team in the family business Koamed, a service provider for occupational medicine and occupational safety. In addition to her entrepreneurial activities, Marlene conducts research on work and mental health in young adults at the University of Groningen and is a doctor-to-be. Marlene wants to make the economy more human and prepare her clients for the working world of the future!
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