I have a friend who works for a NASDAQ-listed multinational. She works long hours; her role is global, requiring regular calls with colleagues across Australia, APAC, Europe and the US. Some days, she has calls with people in all of these places. You can imagine the long hours that this would require.
As a public company, the overriding priority in the C-suite is to deliver shareholder value. Shareholder value and stock price is their north star.
This has a number of repercussions down the organisational hierarchy.
Employees are constantly expected to do more with less. There is no budget for any kind of staff development and the infrastructure available for employees to do their best work is restricted by finance, usually in response to the latest share price.
A lack of infrastructure investment increases the likelihood of system errors, for which workers are then held accountable. A blame culture has set in, as workers compete against one another to remain "safe". Pressure increases and a vicious circle appears to have developed. The more stressed employees become about delivering increasingly ambitious (dare I suggest unrealistic?) goals in ever decreasing time-frames and with minimal spend, the more mistakes are made which have significant impact on customer service. Compromised customer service goes on to affect share price, in turn creating more pressure at board level, amplifying the stress cascading down the organisation. It seems that some executives are unable to handle the pressure, with aggressive and threatening behaviour and language accepted as culturally normal.
When I talk to my friend about her job, she is utterly miserable and disillusioned. She remains in situ because her salary is a good one, and she feels a responsibility to her family to deliver a certain lifestyle. In today’s job market and at her level, she’s not sure that many jobs exist for people like her, and even if they did, would she be "jumping from the frying pan into the fire"? In short, she feels trapped, and I’m reasonably certain that her work-life is already significantly impacting both her physical and mental health and wellbeing.
I write this because I know my friend is far from alone in her predicament. Many large corporates will acknowledge the continuous pressure of trying to deliver value to shareholders in a global economy that is increasingly dumbfounding even the savviest economists and investors. The pace of change afoot in the commercial world is unprecedented.
In parallel, we are witnessing a rapidly emerging tsunami of poor mental health across much of the developed world. I’d wager that much of it is due to increasingly stressful working conditions. We may have a better standard of living than ever before, but work conditions are increasingly fraught, time-bound, and for many, increasingly miserable.
I want to take a moment to explore psychological safety. If you google "psychological safety", you’ll immediately find various articles from websites including hbr.org, hrzone.com, forbes.com and personneltoday.com, each stressing the importance and benefits of psychological safety in the workplace.
So, what is it? Wikipedia describes psychological safety as:
"...a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It can be defined as ’being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career’. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected."
Psychological safety and the future of work
Psychological safety at work is essential. Not simply to reduce the rising tide of work-related anxiety and depression, although that alone is reason enough to strive for it.
For workers to successfully contribute to the innovation that we know will be needed to commercially survive and thrive in the future of work, psychological safety is vital.
Successful business leaders recognise that psychological safety is the bedrock of commercial progress. Being able to create and sustain work environments where every opinion counts, where each worker feels valued and supported, and where everyone knows that all mistakes made are considered a learning opportunity, is in many ways the antithesis of where many organisations currently are.
Evolving towards environments of psychological safety will require a shift of focus away from the current fixation with quarterly shareholder returns and a realisation that in order to create more sustainable and holistic shareholder value, employees need to feel part of the business, and not just a "human resource". Only once this happens will true transformation and innovation take place.
Thankfully, we’ve started open dialogue about the importance of good mental health in the workplace. Recognising our mental health crisis is a HUGE step forward. Acknowledging work as a contributing factor is the logical next step.
As painful as it will no doubt be, identifying and alleviating the work-related triggers of stress and anxiety will be essential, and those leaders enlightened enough to recognise their responsibility in this regard will be the first to benefit commercially.