Working in journalism for a long time can make you hopelessly cynical. I was a business journalist for over a decade before joining The Correspondent, so I tend to automatically snigger when I hear about companies that claim to put the welfare of their employees ahead of growth, profit, and valuation.
Can you blame me? According to the International Labour Organisation, "stress, excessively long working hours and disease contribute to the deaths of nearly 2.8 million workers every year" – road accidents kill fewer than half that number – "while an additional 374 million people get injured or fall ill because of their jobs".
What is bizarre is that this apocalypse is playing out at a time when companies are locked in a fierce competition to build “happy” workplaces. The thinking is that keeping employees in good spirits will help employers win the war for talent and increase productivity.
Clearly, something about the modern workplace is badly broken.
As I argued in my column on the urgent need to reimagine mental health in the workplace, most corporate wellness/mental health programmes have degenerated into feel-good gimmicks, whereas what we really need is a deep, structural change in corporate culture that reimagines how and why business is done. We don’t need companies handing out freebies to ease work-related stress. How about not making people sick with stress in the first place?
I believe it is possible to build humane workplaces without sacrificing growth and profits.
Now, if this sounds like some kind of idealistic fantasy, it isn’t. I believe it is possible to build humane workplaces without sacrificing growth and profits.
What would such a workplace look like? It would be a place where employers don’t equate free food and nap rooms with a mental health-friendly culture. It would incentivise real behavioural shifts that strip away the stigma of mental illness. Performance appraisals would reward employees who demonstrate compassion, not just those who ace sales targets. Managers would be held accountable for ensuring that no one coping with a mental health challenge feels insecure about their jobs. Fairness would be a guiding value in everything the workplace does.
Mental health would be a fundamental human right – not dependent on the employer’s benevolence or justified by cold productivity goals.
Any company can put employees first
Balancing an employee-first mindset with business growth is difficult – but it’s not impossible. Enter Basecamp, whose founders have an 11-point vision to overhaul the workplace (which they say fails every “real world” test).
Basecamp makes project management software and believes that the modern workplace – with its obsession with targets and market share and its never-ending working hours – needs to be thrown into the recycle bin. As opposed to such “crazy” workplaces, Basecamp wants to build a “calm” workplace, where employees can do their best work without messing up their health and personal life.
The best news? Despite its radical practices, Basecamp still makes consistent profits.
Balancing an employee-first mindset with business growth is difficult – but it’s not impossible.
Of course, Basecamp is a small company with admittedly modest ambitions. What would a mental health-friendly workplace look like for 1,000, 10,000, or 100,000 employees? What kind of cultural changes would that call for? What kind of systems and processes? And how would all this change the relationship between the employer and the employee?
Vineet Nayar, former CEO of HCL, an Indian IT company with billions of dollars in revenue and profit, wrote a bestselling book – Employees First, Customers Second – 10 years ago. Nayar explains how a culture of trust and complete transparency helped HCL put “employees first” into practice in a relatively short time. The company, which was struggling when Nayar started evangelising his philosophy, even recorded a stunning turnaround in business performance: within three years, its market capitalisation grew 186%, and it tripled the number of $100m customers in its portfolio.
In the west, consulting major EY and telecom giant Bell Labs have started programmes directed specifically at helping employees with mental health problems.
The takeaway is clear: there is no single prescription, but any company, irrespective of its size, can go on this journey, given it has the right intent.
Help me build a new workplace mental health guidebook
Here’s our chance to help end the cynicism around corporate culture and build a new guidebook for workplace mental health. If you are an employee of a company that is doing things right, or an entrepreneur building such a workplace, I want to hear your story.
Here are five rules for you to assess the candidates:
- I am looking for companies that go beyond the odd mental health helpline or yoga class. Remote working and flexi hours are good – but I consider them unremarkable in 2020.
- I am looking for companies that have a list of sacred workplace rules like Basecamp’s. Rules that everyone from the CEO down are accountable to. Rules that are enforced through watertight implementation, so that they are not merely feel-good spiel.
- Extra points for companies that have built fabulous diversity and inclusion policies to create opportunities for those who aren’t neurotypical.
- Extra, extra points for concrete programmes – like at EY – that encourage employees to break the silence and stigma around mental illness.
- Finally, the company can be of any size, but it must be profitable. (I understand this will leave out a lot of startups. This is OK because startups, by definition, lack mature, time-tested systems.)
Members can write to me in the contribution section below. You can also email me: email@example.com. Based on your response, I might get in touch with you for additional details.
Let’s prove that it doesn’t have to be crazy at work.