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World Health Day: why it is so important to understand the big picture

April 7, 2022

Over the past two years, we have all experienced a whirlwind of changes, unlike anything our generations have known. The global pandemic and resulting emergency lockdowns have impacted daily life in unprecedented ways, dramatically changing numerous dimensions of life, from our personal relationships and psychological well-being to reshaping work and public activities.

The world that has been captured through the VUCA – V:olatile, U:ncertain, C:omplex and A:mbiguous – lens over the past few decades has now transitioned into even greater disruption, where uncertainties are the only certainties we have. Ongoing circumstances no longer fit the VUCA model. The new acronym BANI – B:rittle, A:nxious, N:on-linear and I:ncomprehensible – coined by Jamais Cacio, a North American anthropologist, seems to provide useful insights into our current reality.

What was ‘volatile’ became ‘brittle’, for all that is fragile and unreliable, prone to sudden and catastrophic change; ‘uncertainty’ became ‘anxiety’, the world’s biggest mental health problem; ‘complexity’ became ‘nonlinearity’, as cause and effect seem disconnected or disproportionate; and ‘ambiguity’ became ‘incomprehensibility’. In this new scenario, workers and corporations have to embrace a different mindset in order to capture what is happening in the world and respond accordingly.

The work after COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly provoked rapid organizational change, forcing a redefinition of business strategies and acting as a catalyst for digital transformation in many sectors of the economy. It is estimated that the pandemic anticipated the adoption of digital technologies globally by an average of six years, breaking down traditional barriers to digitalization and fostering changes that are likely to be long lasting.

The sudden increase in remote work has had a significant impact on the labor force. An OCDE survey, conducted among most of its member-countries, showed that in all countries for which comparable data were available, there was an increase in telecommuting during the COVID-19 pandemic, reaching nearly 50% of the labor force in countries such as France, the United Kingdom, and Australia. This may be the biggest post-pandemic legacy for companies, which are more likely to continue or adopt telecommuting or hybrid work arrangements.

If, on the one hand, telework meant no loss of productivity for businesses, on the other hand, it was not easy for workers to bring their work home in a context of lockdown, when many were confined at home with family and children. Suddenly, the lines between personal and professional identity were blurred, and there were no clear boundaries between work time and personal time. Even for employees who lived alone, the transition to working at home meant losing the support of colleagues and working long hours alone.

Employees and managers found themselves pushed to their limits, a situation exacerbated by concerns about economic uncertainty. Two studies found that average telecommuting hours increased by as much as 2.5 hours per day during the pandemic in countries such as the United Kingdom, Austria, Canada, the United States, and the Netherlands. Many felt compelled to make extra efforts to keep their jobs. An analysis by NordVPN found that working outside of regular working hours, shorter lunch breaks, working when sick or on weekends and holidays became routine for many workers.

‘Burnout epidemic’: the danger of chronic stress

Lack of work-life balance, inability to disconnect from work, unreasonable time pressure, crushing workloads, and lack of adequate communication and support from superiors can burn out workers. This leads to feelings of extreme physical and emotional exhaustion, reinforces negative thoughts and mental detachment from one’s work, and reduces professional efficiency. The alarming increase in number of workers suffering burnout has led the World Health Organization (WHO) to recognize it in 2021 as an occupational phenomenon.

‘Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.’

WHO – 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases

Stress is a feeling we all experience when we are challenged or overwhelmed. It is not just an emotion, but a physical reaction that triggers the release of hormones that run through our entire body. Stress can be beneficial in the short term, but prolonged stress, when the stress response is activated too often or for too long, not only alters the brain, but damages other cells and organs throughout the body.

The American Psychological Association points out that chronic stress can contribute to developing health-related impairments and damage all body systems, including musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive. Prolonged high stress levels also impair learning, concentration, memory, decision-making and emotional control.

Not only can stress be a threat to our health, but working long hours increases the risk of stroke by 35% and the risk of dying from ischemic heart disease by 17%, as reported by WHO and ILO. When employees work more than 50 hours weekly, the risk of burnout increases significantly and climbs even higher after 60 hours.

As reported by Gallup, although the length of working hours is an important factor, the way employees experience workload and how they are managed have a stronger influence on triggering burnout. Stress is often made worse when employees feel they have little support from supervisors and colleagues, as well as little control over work processes.

According to a Small Business Price survey of 26 European countries, workers in Portugal are the most affected by burnout and rank first among countries with the highest risk of burnout. The inquiry analyzed the World Happiness Index, average salary and weekly working hours as indicators. Of the top countries with the highest risk of burnout, Portugal has one of the longest working hours, averaging 39.5 hours per week, and the lowest salaries, at €22,373.

The high cost of stress

High levels of stress over an extended period of time are counterproductive to both health and work. Stress is detrimental to productivity; stressed professionals are less focused, engaged, committed and productive. Consequently, it negatively impacts organizational performance and results. The cost of stress to the overall economy is enormous.

In the latest cross-country measurement, the cost of work-related stress in Europe (EU-15) was estimated at €26.47 billion. No less than 60% of all lost working days in the EU are due to work-related stress. Increased absenteeism, staff turnover and intent to quit, decreased efficiency and accuracy of performance, additional health care and medical costs are all significant financial burdens on businesses and society caused by chronic stress.

In the United Kingdom alone, in 2021, stress, depression, and anxiety were responsible for 17.9 million lost workdays, making it the largest occupational risk factor, taking each employee out of work for an average of 21.6 days, longer than any other work-related illness. The economic burden of this work-related phenomenon reaches $300 billion annually in the United States, and workplace stress causes an additional $190 billion in health care expenditures.

Every year we spend more on health. The WHO estimates global spending in 2017 at $7.8 trillion, about 10% of global GDP, with costs rising faster than economic growth. Depression and anxiety have a significant negative impact on the global economy, with lost productivity estimated at $1 trillion per year.

Burnout and work-related stress are also major reasons employees quit their jobs or consider quitting. Companies are facing a talent crisis, as the number of resignations is higher than it has been in two decades. The Society for Human Resource Management estimates that the cost of replacing an employee – lost productivity, recruiting, hiring and training – averages 6 to 9 months’ salary plus benefits, and represents between 50% and 250% of the job expense.

The reasons why employees leave are increasingly clear, as O.C. Tanner’s Burnout Report shows: a poorer work-life balance, a lack of trust in leadership, limited learning opportunities, an increased perception of favoritism, a lack of recognition, a poor workplace culture, and a non-existent or uninspiring corporate purpose.

While this frightening panorama is troubling, it need not worsen. Companies and employees need to change their perceptions and attitudes regarding stress. Stress is not a consequence, but a culture embedded in the business world. Executives and senior leaders should make health and wellbeing a priority, this will pay huge dividends; ignoring stress will continue to drive up costs. Every dollar invested in employee wellness results in a $4 increase in productivity. Looking toward the future, prevention is the key.

Stress does not have to be a villain

We will all experience stressful situations. Stress is ultimately a biological response that helps us survive difficult circumstances. Acute stress, short-term, occasional reactions, activates the immune system and the body’s defenses. It promotes the redistribution of immune cells in the body, which serve as natural protection and prevent injury or infection even before wounding.

It can also have positive effects on the brain when it occurs episodically. Intermittent stress can provide extra energy and increase concentration, keeping the brain more alert, which has a positive effect on performance. As researcher Daniela Kaufer explains:

‘Some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioral and cognitive performance’

Daniela Kaufer – 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases

The way we respond to everyday stressors can also have a positive impact on cognitive function. Acute short-term stress has been associated with improved working memory performance, conditioning and spatial learning, as well as increased social behavior in tests with humans.

Not only is it important to overcome chronic stress, but it is also important to better manage stress when we eventually face greater challenges. The way we think and act about stress can change the experience of stress and its physical and mental consequences. If we think of stress as a response to a challenge, we can use it positively to improve performance and strengthen the body’s protection. Understanding stressful situations as helpful for performance increases self-confidence and changes the physical stress response.

What can corporations do to promote healthier workplaces?

Companies need to change their approach to wellness by prioritizing people’s care and investing in overall mental, physical, emotional and relational well-being, just as they invest in innovation, because people are companies’ competitive advantage. Corporate culture and communication style should set the tone, and in this sense, leaders are most important. They should lead by example and encourage their teams to adopt healthier workplace relationships.

Managers have a responsibility to guard against unfair treatment, set reasonable expectations, provide support, and communicate openly and clearly, having one-on-one conversations to build safe and supported teams. To find a sustainable, long-term solution, employees must feel able to identify potential stressors, voice their concerns and fears, and communicate the necessary actions and services.

‘Interventions should be delivered as part of an integrated health and well-being strategy that covers prevention, early identification, support and rehabilitation.’

WHO – Mental health in the workplace

Organizations must measure burnout, identify the cultural conditions in the workplace that trigger stress, and take active steps to alleviate it. The key to success is to involve stakeholders and employees at all levels when promoting preventive interventions or providing assistance and when monitoring their effectiveness.

Critical to managing this new BANI reality in the workplace is creating a system that provides a sense of resilience, minimizes anxiety, develops adaptability, and elevates consciousness to a higher level. As suggested by Jamais Cacio:

’Brittleness could be met by resilience and slack; anxiety can be eased by empathy and mindfulness; nonlinearity would need context and flexibility; incomprehensibility asks for transparency and intuition’

Jamais Acacio – Facing the age of chaos