Modern western thinking puts what we “do” — our jobs, central to our personal and social identity. Work has become what Wallace (2002, p.2) defines as “a person’s sense of who he or she is.” It is through work that we define and develop a sense of commitment and make hard decisions, as well as navigate interpersonal relationships and learn to collaborate. Work is also presented as the road to achieving personal success, financial security, status, acquire knowledge and can become our primary opportunity for social interactions.
Our work identity then becomes the primary lens through which we relate to ourselves, others, and the world around us. Let’s add to this our Western belief of self-reliance — having grit. This ideology makes it the individual’s responsibility to know the skills needed to succeed, manage the stressors of productivity challenges, and navigate the various dynamics of relationships.
All of this leads to two recurring mental health issues that are, in my mind, both sides of the same coin — a sense of not belonging and burnout.
Current business leadership research has identified a sense of not belonging (SoNB) in a workplace as a lack of quality relationships, shared traits, and feeling like you don’t add value. The World Health Organization defines burnout as a chronic imbalance between work demands and available resources. Both SoNB and burnout lead to a disconnect between the workplace and the individual needs of workers and the inability of workers to voice their concerns safely.
Most of my clients moved far from their families, communities, or even country to pursue professional dreams. This leaves them heavily reliant on their work and work community to cultivate a sense of connectivity or belonging.
We are born with a fundamental need to form positive and enduring interpersonal relationships. Our social attachment system has evolved to alert us to potential social exclusion because it impacts our ability to survive and thrive. Neuroscience studies have found that rejection and interpersonal ruptures trigger the same neurobiological system as physical pain. Therefore, a healthy corporate culture and meaningful relationships with colleagues become vital to an employee’s ability to feel safe enough to be productive and grow within an organization.
While discussing the mental health of employees has become a concern for many organizations, with some instituting well-intentioned wellness programs, these perks, unfortunately, don’t address the underlying symptoms or causes of SoNB and burnout – all of which correlate with anxiety, depression, as well as other mental-health related issues.
How can we expect employees to stay engaged when, for example, they are being undervalued, subjected to unhealthy competition, or experiencing demeaning treatment? If organizational cultures are hierarchical or political, how are employees supposed to feel safe enough to advocate for themselves — let alone work to change the culture? How can we expect employees to ask for support in addressing ongoing workload (i.e., task list, meetings, client engagement) or interpersonal dynamics that undermine productivity if they know will be judged as incapable or not the right fit?
There is an expression that “organizations begin to stink like a dead fish — from the head down.” Leadership must be held accountable. A review of organizational and leadership practices is essential in taking measurable steps to remedy behaviors that lead individuals to feel as if they don’t belong. Organizations must learn to think outside the top-level executives in the C-suite. Are workflow setups supportive and flexible enough to meet employees at the various stages of their work identity? How are teams engaging in and promoting inclusiveness across the organization? Leadership skills centered around being “results-driven” have dominated workplace culture rather than cultivating sustainable productivity, interpersonal intelligence, and fostering team connections. A recent example is Elon Musk issuing an email to Twitter employees that they must either commit to an “extremely hardcore” performance-focused workplace or resign. In the end, a large number of them decided to resign.
Organizations must begin to recognize the importance of cultivating an environment that nurtures the work identities of their employees through the development of genuine relationships. Learning to look for signs of burnout or behaviors that signal that an employee may need additional support. Organizations must begin to offer easy-to-obtain counseling and work coaching assistance outside of their normal HR department. McKinsey research found that a third of employees surveyed coping with a mental health concern would avoid treatment because they didn’t want anyone in their workplace finding out about their condition. Proactively asking questions lets employees voice their concerns, cultivates a sense of belonging, and lets them know that they are valued. This type of relationship fosters an inclusive and psychologically safe environment for employees to be vulnerable and voice their concerns without fear of repercussions.
Also important, day-to-day business practices that don’t align with stated Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) goals are experienced by employees as empty and broken promises. This means rethinking what is needed to illustrate an organization’s commitment to inclusion from the board and leadership down. Whether it is working moms, older employees, health concerns, or cultural differences, organizations must openly acknowledge issues or stages of life that impact an employee’s work identity. The hard conversation within organizations then revolves around being transparent about how to be inclusive and nurture diverse talent so they can make a valuable contribution.
I cannot emphasize enough that organizations must truly begin to take stock of the mental health and well-being concerns of their employees. This isn’t just about the number of hours an employee is working, but meeting the needs of an employee in their current stage of work identity. Offering employee meditation pods, catered lunches, or a flexible work week won’t alleviate burnout unless adjustments to their task lists happen in tandem. Teaching employees how to manage stress and individual skill coaching are important employee support strategies. However, cultivating a sense of belonging and tackling burnout isn’t something an individual employee can fix. If organizations truly value their talent, as well as recognize the impact that the workplace has on an individual’s overall identity and well-being, then addressing the underlying issues of SoNB and burnout becomes paramount.