Depression and anxiety is on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) list as the leading cause of disability globally. The effects of depression in the workplace have a high cost; $1 trillion dollars each year in the US. Behind that number there are stories of careers destroyed and family life reduced to being barely functional. The WHO counts an estimated 300 million human stories world-wide – stories of undetected signals of depression, loss of value and self-worth which, in some cases, leads to suicide.
Unfortunately in many workplaces, the prevailing belief is that if you are depressed you are weak. Judgments of that nature ignore that workplaces are, in part, responsible for creating the conditions for depression. When company profitability is achieved at the expense of employee and customer well-being, creative contribution is repressed and disengaged. Suppress expression of creative talent and biologically it results in depression.
Humans have an innate need to express creative talent so connecting the deep need with the critical contribution of workplace health is fundamental to converting depression with engagement. Understanding the interrelationship requires that judgment be set aside in order to take a closer look at the dynamics.
Does the Workplace Support or Suppress Safety and Expression?
The workplace environment is saturated with emotional data that gets interpreted by your brain as ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’ which roughly translates into ‘grow’ or ‘protect’ respectively. Compiled with the emotional charge of your thoughts: negative-positive or neutral, your brain interprets the data to determine whether it is safe for you to be you and to express yourself in any given situation. Piling on another layer, which adds or subtracts from safety, is the unnoticed presence of unconscious bias embedded in interpersonal communication and decisions like pay equity, and actions. Combined, these streams of data accumulate as direct and indirect messages about your value, place in the world and sense of belonging all of which are core to human health. That makes signals for detecting depression subtle and cumulative as well as uniquely personal. Mandi Luis-Buckner reports in her article What I Wish I Knew signals like a sense of blurriness, guilt about letting your team down, irritability, feeling emotionally overwhelmed by certain tasks, or fear of losing your job or your income. These and other symptoms mark the spot on the downward spiral where the heart’s energy becomes increasingly depleted. Without the heart being fully engaged, performance is seriously compromised. Collective performance is compromised and business results suffer.
The external environment and workplace interpersonal communications, combined with management and communication style, directly sets the safety for creative expression. Companies that manage themselves through statistics rather than collective accomplishment are guilty of creating unsafe workplaces that suppress the creative expression essential for rapid response to surprises.
What Lies Beneath Stigma?
Stigma is a judgment delivered without conscious thought. It is convenient to simply blame someone rather than looking more deeply at the drivers creating the situation. And stigma further compounds the depressive statistics of workplace depression and loss of productivity.
The company is not in peak health if its employees are not in peak health.
Through the lens of mental illness, depression and anxiety are given a comforting label (at least there is some explanation for what you are experiencing). But there is something bigger at work that, when recognized, can reverse the loss of human potential, quality of life, and business sustainability by recognizing the fundamental shifts companies and individuals are being called to make.
Recognizing the Invisible Forces Creating Depression
Companies are under pressure to flexibly respond to volatile conditions, surprise interruptions to business models, and rapidly changing market conditions. Unintentionally, the pressure is relayed to employees who must work harder and faster, in unpredictable conditions while using outdated processes. Recognition of the pressure enables intentionally deciding to rise above habitual patterns.
Better Response! Depression and anxiety in the workplace signal that passing it down the line is not working. Taking a collective pause to reflect, observe and sense what is going on can offer the epiphany needed to adopt a more practical and human course of action. It means getting out of your mind in order to tap into the collective intuition to gain insight.
Metrics that measure quarterly and meaningless contributions are uninspiring and barely engage the intellect much less talent. Millennial’s are not alone in wanting their jobs to provide personal growth. If a company wants to thrive in today’s world it is an imperative to engage all employees as thinkers and co-creators.
Better Response! Distribute power throughout the company for decision making. Start with early experiments to improve communication and remove systemic blocks to contribution. You might need to go so far as to toss out a bunch of metrics that just do not matter to the customer or have no real meaning internally. Ensure that the three touchstones for engaging the power of the human spirit are cared for daily: initiative, sense of control, maintaining a positive outlook on like.
Bold decisions will be on the table: Ban bullying behaviour from all without exception for instance. Tackle unconscious bias through proven practices derived from neuroscience. Workshops to raise awareness have proven to be ineffective. Serious commitment is required. Being transparent, rebuilding trust and opening the space for talent to contribute with a clear sense of purpose demands growth on all levels.
At a personal level you can increase awareness to reverse the downward spiral into depression by being more aware of your emotional state. Emotion is like water, fluid with ebbs and flows. To see the effect of what you are experiencing emotionally, notice the impact on your heart’s energy – your built-in barometer. Everything is energy. Pretending otherwise is convenient but without energy you do not get up in the morning. Positive energy uplifts. Negative energy drains and exhausts.
Personal and organizational energy is essential to create, to decide, or take action. Too much negative energy takes you on a downward spiral, which, unless interrupted, results in depression. Observing the subtle effect of what someone has communicated to you or how it’s been communicated allows you to notice whether the effect is upward or downward. Downward is depleting. Upward strengthens and builds. Downward effects have to be countered by reversing negativity into a constructive outlook on life and through looking after yourself emotionally and physically through mindfulness practices or meditation, or yoga.
Increasing Workplace Health and Business Responsiveness through Accepting Responsibility
Logically speaking, using stigma to avoid looking deeper is an ineffective way to handle the situation. However, beliefs about stress-related signals can be changed and applied to restoring organizational health. Full acceptance of responsibility for the health of the workplace can be achieved by working on the humanity of workplaces, not the metrics. Do that, and the metrics will move exponentially. You have the chance to respond responsibly.
The massive changes underway in the world show up in market conditions. The volatility will not slow down. Capacity to work with it must then speed up. There is no reset button to revert to a time more certain and predictable. This is an exciting time for humanity and for business to show that we are collectively capable of being better in the face of adversity. Dropping the stigma and finding human-based solutions is a good way to start.
Dawna works with progressive early adopter companies and decision makers to create a growth-oriented workplaces and ethically integral reputations. A speaker and workshop leader, she is also the author of Decision Making for Dummies and has contributed a chapter on the new purpose of business to ‘The Intelligence of the Cosmos” by systems theorist Ervin Laszlo. She hosts the Insight to Action podcast for business innovators. Contact her through www.FromInsightToAction.com and LinkedIn.