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A case study and a way to nurture mental health

Written by Katriina Tahka

Chronic exhaustion, anxiety, an over-active mind that prevents a deep and restful sleep from occurring, and the onset of depression and other mental issues. These symptoms sound pretty common, right? They’ve almost become the trademark of this working generation. When ignored, these symptoms can lead to serious long term health complications, self-harm and a complete nervous system collapse resulting in bed-bound individuals who have exhausted all of their mental and physical resources. In extreme cases, it can also lead to suicide.

Burnout is no longer a buzzword that gets thrown around. It’s officially recognised by the World Health Organisation as a serious diagnosis with its own definition: “Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Burnout doesn’t only impact the individuals and their families, it also impacts overall productivity levels in the workplace. We are seeing more and more research that indicates shorter working hours actually result in greater productivity levels. The opportunity to rest, enjoy ample leisure time, and nurture family life actually creates a workplace dynamic that is better focused and more goal-driven.

One of the most effective ways of preventing burnout is to address the “chronic workplace stress” by redesigning the job and changing the organisational culture, which is the primary responsibility under occupational health and safety laws, of the Employer. This is a tremendous responsibility and it’s not always easy for employers to step outside of the structures they’re comfortable with and facilitate a change that is going to translate into positive results for the enterprise.

This is where an HR firm with a special interest in combating and preventing workplace burnout, is beneficial. The HR firm focuses on optimising productivity levels in order to maintain or improve the revenue generation of the company while transitioning out of a traditional workplace structure that breeds burnout. 

An interesting example to draw from

Naturally, certain industries are more prone to overworking their professionals. In Australia, burnout is most prevalent among the law and construction fields. The stress levels in these fields are measured by disproportionately high levels of self-harm and mental health issues.

Both industries have a pervasive culture of excessive work hours brought out in different ways. Contributing factors include weekend work, late nights, intense deadlines and financial pressures. These result in excessive stress, self-medication and ultimately burnout and social dysfunction. Case in point: construction workers are six times more likely to die from suicide than an incident at work, and 190 Australian construction workers take their lives every year.

What is being done to combat the burnout epidemic in the construction field?

Knowing what the industry-leading professionals are doing to combat this problem can demonstrate a way forward for everyone. Each entrepreneur will simply need to adapt the points to suit their business structure, sometimes with the help of an HR facilitator who is experienced in navigating these changes successfully.

A-HA has facilitated an industry roundtable for the construction field for five years. The focus is on culture, mental health and well-being. These roundtable meetings ensure that discussions are held at an industry level so that solutions and ideas are shared. A-HA creates an open forum for transparent discussion on topics that need to be tackled within the industry and sharing strategies and guidance for businesses to implement impactful and positive change.

A major change that has been implemented by one of construction's leading businesses, Roberts Pizzarotti, was making the choice to adopt a 5-day workweek. While the move to this new model wasn’t easy to start with, it has proven to be extremely effective, gaining support from employees, contractors and other businesses. 

The introduction of a shorter workweek in an industry that is entrenched in long hours and 6 day work weeks has been instrumental in ensuring employees mental health is looked after.

The results were profound. The decrease in work hours has actually resulted in an increase in productivity – by taking away the focus on presenteeism (people being “present” as mistaken for people actually working) employees work hard when they’re working, get the job done, then go home to rest. Roberts Pizzarotti’s CEO, Alison Mirams, speaks about the industry and urges other companies to re-introduce 5-day workweeks:

“If you get people who love going to work, they’ll achieve greatness,” she assures. “If you put people in a happy place, they will perform at their best. I get my energy by going out to our sites and seeing how happy our people are and seeing them thrive. I genuinely care about our staff.”

Burned out people are not effective at improving the company’s revenue generation just by sitting at a desk or standing on-site. The idea that presenteeism equals productivity is a common misperception that continues to pervade many workplaces.

How the legal industry is utilising HR best practices to improve productivity and reduce burnout

Consider that in this field, it is imperative that professionals have their full cognitive functions engaged in order to be productive and achieve the best possible outcomes for their clients. Burnout, chronic exhaustion and declining mental health will not serve the company. Longer working hours are not in the best interest of the employees or business.

Findings from the Beyondblue National Depression initiative revealed that when compared to other professions, lawyers experienced the highest incidence of depressive symptoms. Respondents from law firms were also the most likely to use alcohol or other drugs to reduce or manage their symptomatology. The Brain and Mind Research Institute reported in 2009 that almost a third of solicitors and one in five barristers surveyed suffered from clinical depression.

Fortunately, there are measures that improve the high levels of stress and burnout in this field. These measures include:

  • Consciously curating a positive, inclusive, healthy workplace culture that is lived in what they say and do. Company culture is best established at the conception of the business. You build your company policies, tone and structures around the values you have set out in your clearly defined company culture. It is never too late to set about defining the company culture for the first time.
  • Leading law firms embed their company culture by running regular health and well-being sessions for all employees, facilitated by a well-being coach who takes people through meditation, yoga and nutrition.
  • Regular paid social events for all members of staff can also replenish the mental faculties, providing a welcome break from the intensive thinking and planning aspects of the job. Whilst this may seem normal to some companies, it is very unique for law firms, it is not standard practice for the industry, especially for a firm that specialises in the cut-throat world of mergers and acquisitions, financial services and corporate law.
  • Remaining goal-focused and efficient often leaves little time for pleasantries in this industry. Thus, enforcing a “check your ego at the door” policy can help employees navigate high-stress situations by focusing on the team deliverables and well-being. This line of work can often foster and create self-centred, and non-team behaviour, exacerbating stress and misery in the workplace. The company culture needs to clearly state that this is not tolerated.

Again, we can combat burnout by looking at the presenteeism mindset. By enforcing a work-hard, but go-home when its quiet policy, employees have a break and return refreshed, sharp and ready to think more innovatively.

The solution: A Human-First approach to business

Burnout, tiredness and success have become synonymous, and this is a tragedy. Many people wear their exhaustion like badges of honour - if you are tired it means you are a productive member of society. It starts in the workplace. Employers that foster the belief that the hardest worker is the most likely to be promoted, create a culture that centres around suffering in order to be financially safe, secure and enjoy opportunities for growth.

When employers encourage time off and begin to value happy, well-rested, balanced employees, the change in culture will slowly drip-feed into society. Employers can make healthy the ‘new cool’, instead of tired.

If the business is viewed as a ship, the entrepreneur believes that by serving the well-being of the company first, it is then possible to serve the needs of the individuals. After all, everyone needs to be afloat, this is the top priority. However, when the needs of the crew are met first, it is easier, faster and cheaper to keep the ship in the best condition possible, making it more likely to survive storms and keep all of its passengers safe, comfortable and happy. When employees battle with burnout, you’ll find yourself constantly plugging holes in the company while the burnout epidemic continues to grow.

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