Can you relate to the picture above? Many can.
In my 2015 TEDx talk on ‘the global epidemic of workplace unhappiness’ I reported that 87% of the global workforce, according to Gallup, was either “checked out” from their workplace or “acting out their unhappiness”±.
It was a dismal statistic and I took some time to review the updated 2021¹ Gallup report in the hope to discover a somewhat improved picture.
Unfortunately, it got worse.
In the 2021 report introduction, Jim Clifton, the company’s CEO states, “Gallup has discovered that negative emotions have been rising over the past decade.”
I invite you to pause for a moment, and reflect on the magnitude of what you just read… 87% of the global workforce is reported as disengaged or worse. The implications are of enormous magnitude!
Not only does the 2021 Gallup report estimate that the situation is costing the global economy US$8.1 trillion in lost productivity each year – each year! – sadly it also estimates that employees’ mental health will continue to get worse.
Really? Can it really get worse than it already is? According to the Gallup report, it can.
If the trend continues in this negative trajectory, the repercussions will be felt across many domains, both collective - economic, social or environmental, as well as individual - physical, emotional or mental.
The State of Global Workplace 2021 Report that I am referencing here, is derived from large data samples collected by Gallup every year, including a range of surveys conducted since the COVID-19 pandemic, which surveyed people across 116 different countries. While the report may not be fully representative of everyone’s reality, it certainly captures an audience broad enough to deserve some closer scrutiny.
The 2021 data suggests that employee engagement remained largely unchanged at about 20% compared to the 2013 dataset I used for my TEDx talk. Additionally, the 2021 report presents new narratives that are specifically focused on employees’ mental health; a welcome perspective, given the current global state of affairs.
The report clearly states that “Employees reported higher worry, stress, anger and sadness in 2020 than they had in the previous year.”
When comparing data, we discover that between 2013 and 2020:
daily worry increased from 32% to 41%
daily stress increased from 37% to 43%
daily anger from 18% to 24%
daily sadness from 18% to 25%.
These figures are worryingly high and it’s important to invest some time to explore them further.
Why is it important to invest time to consider these trends?
Let’s put this data in the context of an average lifespan.
THE DATA IN THE CONTEXT OF AN AVERAGE LIFE
For simplicity, let’s imagine that the average human lives 80 years.
About one third (circa 27 years) of our average human life is spent between trying to sleep and sleeping. This is by far the biggest portion of time taken by any one activity.
The next biggest portion is work. This is the reason why it is important to invest time to consider the Gallup data.
Have you ever considered what percentage of our waking hours we spend at work over a life time?
Depending on how we measure the total duration of a working life, estimates suggest that we spend between 9 and 13 years working. Please note that these estimates refer to actual work hours.
To verify these figures, I made some basic assumptions to arrive at my own estimate.
Wanting to be conservative, let’s say that my life as a useful worker spans across 40 years. Accounting for weekends, public holidays and other types of absences, I would work an average of 240 days per year, and an average 8 hours per day. That is a total of 76,800 hours spent working. This represents 11% of my average 80-year lifespan, which is equivalent to about 9 full years.
My over-simplified calculation is likely an underestimation of actual figures when we consider that technology has extended working hours by keeping us constantly connected, even outside office hours.
Regardless, even if we limit ourselves to accept this lower estimate, we begin to appreciate why the Gallup data is so scary. The majority of people today is predicted to spend an average of 9 years of their waking life in a context within which they feel checked out or worse, and where mental health, which is already negatively impacted, is predicted to get worse.
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR A BETTER WORKPLACE ENVIRONMENT?
Parents and families could do a lot to address these issues within the confines of their homes. However, they unfortunately often lack the resources, knowledge and tools to skilfully do so.
A lot could be done to support parents in creating a nurturing home environment that facilitates the development of authentic and resilient children, who can go on to become a useful member of society who can balance wellbeing with productivity. However, resources are scarce and it is difficult to engage parents in shifting mindsets when much of what they see around is a competitive world measured on performance and achievements.
Governments could do a lot to regulate the workplace in their respective countries, so to implement policies that benefit both employers and employees. Unfortunately, powerful lobbies operate behind the scenes to shape policies designed to serve business interests that prioritise profits above anything else, often at the expense of employees’ humanity and wellbeing.
One can only imagine how hard it is for many Governments to balance the human and economic needs of their countries, and it is understandable that often the lure of cash or future economic growth is the preferred choice.
Thankfully, global trends on workplace wellbeing are becoming louder, and wellbeing advocates more vocal. As a result, many political leaders around the world are actively reviewing and managing workplace policies to create a healthier balance. For example, South Korea’s National Assembly passed a law in 2018 reducing the maximum working week from 68 hours to 52. They regulated the workplace towards shorter working hours to boost productivity. A welcome recognition that more hours does not necessarily mean higher productivity.
And yet, many business leaders actively promote a gruelling working culture, and demand that their employees comply. Think for example of the ‘996’ work culture popularised by Jack Ma; work from 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week. Given its detrimental impact on a very large workforce, the Chinese Government had to take notice and has stepped in to create a workplace that is more sympathetic to its employees.
In my opinion, the ones with the power to create the most immediate changes are employers. They are directly responsible for creating work cultures and environments that can make or break a large portion of the population’s health.
Compared to 30 years ago, when I officially entered the economy as an active contributor, I have seen many positive changes in the workplace, however this is not enough.
Companies all over the world have instituted CSR, D&I, Sustainability, Innovation and Wellbeing committees and working-groups. This is fantastic, however, these units often have little power to influence or shape the business agenda. Clients, sales, profits and shareholders returns remain the prime – and often only – focus for the key decision makers.
The pandemic has forced many to reassess their priorities, and we are already seeing the exodus of employees who woke up to the need for a simpler, more fulfilling and satisfying life. People, now more than ever, realise that many employment practices no longer represent the value-for-value exchange they once perceived.
Over the last two decades, literature linking mindfulness, wellbeing, engagement and productivity has proliferated. Sadly, most employers still treat this data as a nice to have rather than a must have.
My hope and “prediction” is that these positive forces cannot be ignored for too long and that within one or two generations, wellbeing will genuinely be adopted as a business competitive edge. For now, we must continue to promote a balanced approach to employment, in the hope to create a better world for all.
Many of the largest companies already work with enlightened CHROs and board advisers who genuinely value wellbeing as a business tool for success, but many are still lagging behind.
I imagine that all employers want to implement policies that maximise returns in the most effective and efficient manner.
I also imagine that all employers may dream of policies that can indeed safeguard wellbeing.
But I also imagine that they find it difficult to implement such policies when the resulting changes are so slow to emerge. It often is easier to chase the short-term gain.
Perhaps, those organisations who have yet to prioritise a healthy debate on wellbeing could invite their CHROs to be board members, or at least seek experts with business and human capital expertise to be advisers. The important thing is to start the dialogue.
I genuinely believe we are on a positive trajectory of change and that in a not too distant a future, we will have integrated, balanced and healthy employment policies across a large portion of the global workforce.
My hope is that we can address the current situation fast enough to avoid a catastrophic wave of severe mental health issues that would severely impact the world economies in ways we could not predict.
Let’s grow louder in promoting mental health in the workplace. While it won’t solve all of mental health issues that we currently face, it will go a long way to improve the quality of life of many millions of people.
Thank you for reading my article.
I base all my articles on real case studies and research findings that are relevant to my work and my clients.
Feel free to reach out to me with any questions or if you would like to explore something together.
± State of the Global Workplace 2013 ¹ State of the Global Workplace 2021