As if all the challenges that have been burdening the job market since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic weren't enough, it turns out that employers are now also grappling with the mental state of their employees, which is in a new collective low.
A recent global Gallup poll reveals that workers around the world are struggling in their workplaces: they lack motivation, feel disconnected, go to work just because they have to make a living, not because they enjoy it, and this, of course, isn’t divorced from the broad impacts of life itself like COVID, and the judicial reform controversy in Israel - each according to the side they are on the political map and what affects them in particular.
"We're in the midst of a mental health pandemic in the workplace," declares Oren Apfel, an organizational consultant and expert on the subject of organizational happiness, and all the other experts we spoke to concur.
"Workers around the world are crying out for help, and the compelling recommendation emerging from the research is that in order to save the world, we must change the way people are managed and disconnect from management methods that were common 150 years ago. We have to start seeing the employee before us."
Can you explain what is the Gallup poll all about? “Gallup, a leading research institute that has been studying all concepts related to work engagement for years, publishes an annual report of hundreds of pages on the global work situation. The recently published report pertains to 2022 and, according to it, only 23%, less than a quarter, of employees feel connected to their workplace, team, manager and employer. By the way, the more people feel connected to their workplace, the less stress they experience and are less likely to leave.
Another worrying trend emerging from the report: 59% of employees are indifferent and psychologically disconnected from work, and they are what is called "quiet resigners" — they do not see importance in what they do, and therefore their involvement in work is low, and they do the bare minimum or less. This situation costs the global economy nearly $9 trillion - 9% of the global GDP.
In addition to the aforementioned issues, the stress that people experience in workplaces today is at an all-time high: 44% of respondents indicate that they experience high levels of stress on a daily basis. This is 13% more than in 2009.
The main source of stress is managers, who don’t see the worker behind the performance charts and tasks. And, of course, there are also technological changes and the impact of remote work: there's an expectation that employees will be available at all times, even during night hours, via emails and WhatsApp.
This is the main reason why half of the employees are looking for work, alongside 18% who reported a strong negative relationship with the workplace and said they really hate it. These are harsh data, as a person who hates their job often feels worse than an unemployed person.
So, what can be done about all this? "Workplaces need to understand that it is worthwhile for them to care about how the employee feels because it will help them function better since we spend most of our waking hours at work. Today, there is a discourse that looks beyond profits and understands that productivity and time are equations of the past, and that today there is a partnership between the individual and the organization to create a different model."
Nili Goldfein, an expert in leadership and management in a world of disruption and EVP of business development at NGG Global Consulting, speaks about a change in the "contract" between the employee and the workplace.
"Tens of millions around the world have left their workplaces in what was known as 'quiet quitting’ during and after the COVID pandemic, and those who did not leave simply slowed down and disengaged, even though the sword of layoffs is hanging over many people's heads. This means that the psychological contract between employers and corporations has completely changed. The threat of layoffs did not cause people to change their motivation."
Is this primarily occurring among the younger generation? "Yes, who place values and self-realization before commitment to the workplace. This may stem from the fact that our trust in governments and leaders is declining, and this lack of trust causes cynicism and mistrust in workplaces as well. People do not want to be enslaved to work, and the result is that most employees come to work like an 'autopilot'. Such an employee does not invest but thinks about the next step or the next workplace."
The manager doesn't know everything
It turns out that this is not entirely a new issue. Oded Tamir, a strategic consultant and process improvement specialist at AgileSparks, directs us to previous Gallup reports that identified outdated and hierarchical management structures as the central cause for employee disengagement and indifference.
Sadly, many managers do not realize how acute this is, he says. They continue to manage hierarchically, operating under the "I know everything" assumption, and old perceptions create individuals with narrow thinking within organizations. And when you narrow minds, morale isn't great either.
American professor William Deming, who significantly contributed to improving the quality and functioning of managers in workplaces, declared that there are no bad employees, only bad systems, and it's the managers' role to fix those systems. Tamir suggests we keep this in mind.
Clinical psychologist Lior Bitton broadens the scope: Even before COVID, depression was defined as a global pandemic, with numbers rising both among adults and young people.
One cannot disconnect a person's mental state from their performance at work. The labor market has changed its face after COVID – the form of work has shifted, private life has permeated work and vice versa, and this intermingling is not easy for us. Moreover, it's not easy to return to previous models and erase all that we've been through.
Workplaces have always grappled with issues of stress and employee burnout, says Michal Brosh, global human resources VP at Riverside. "But those were events on the professional plane, and we had the tools to deal with them: relieve the employee's stress, provide help, divide tasks, there was control. However, since COVID, I feel there’s a struggle with issues that go beyond the work framework, and they express crises in the employees' lives themselves, like loneliness, depression, hopelessness, and escapism. It's not that making a change at work will alter anything. Employees are having concentration problems; we see that they are not present, they lose interest, don’t attend meetings, forget, are confused, are not punctual and escape to their phones and social media.
“The desire for success no longer works. If once we could revive a burnt-out employee by talking about a renewed sense of success at work, here it doesn’t help because the source is outside of work. Sometimes we don't see it daily, and then one day, the employee melts down, collapses. A person who functioned until yesterday wakes up in the morning and says they can no longer continue. People even go to therapy, and it requires a lot of inclusion. In the United States, they have already learned to talk about this with the employees."
And what about us? "In Israel, we still don’t know how to emphasize it. With a 'more is better' work culture, and the Israeli 'macho' culture, we don’t know how to come forward and say I'm lonely and sad. On the other hand, Israelis have something that Americans don't – family support. In our country, people lean more on their family. In the United States, our workers live alone, sometimes far from their parents and close family for weeks, experiencing severe loneliness and depression."
Bitton also talks about the great concealment of employees who struggle mentally in everyday life but do not put it on the table, instead preferring to invent an excuse and leave, or work at a lower volume.
"There's crazy data about the rate of 'quiet quitting’ from Generation Z due to mental health issues. For example, the prime reason for absence from work in Israel today is not physical illness or injury but on the basis of mental health-related issues. The significance of this data for companies is huge, but companies are blind to it, because they do not see this element in the employee's life, and because there is a stigma on the subject of mental health and a social consensus that it does not get brought to the office. So, they make up a stomachache or a car in the garage."
Bitton, who gives lectures to human resource managers under the title "The Soul Doesn't Punch a Time Clock," says that managers must understand that employees do not leave their soul at home when they come to work, and they must start speaking the language of mental health, of difficulties, coping and employee stress.
Bitton is not only a clinical psychologist, but he is also a professional manager and a business development manager in the mental health field at Pami, a private health company. The company offers employers—through various organizations such as HMOs, insurance companies and the military—a digital system named "I Feel" that diagnoses and monitors the mental health of employees and also provides responses.
If this sounds to you like artificial intelligence meets 1984, Bitton reassures and says that the benefits outweigh the concerns. "The system exists in 24 countries; we are the 25th country. We've adopted it and begun marketing to organizations. Although Pami is a business company, I also come with a social agenda."
What does the system do? "The system allows the employee to address their mental state in a very accessible way, and not always to start a long process of psychological therapy. For example, you can correspond with a therapist and ask a specific question that bothers you, consult with a professional on everyday life issues to ease functioning, for example: I have a fear of crowds and I need tools for a presentation, or I am in a mood because of the situation in Israel, how do I cope. This facilitates and encourages, and also increases connectivity to the organization because the employee feels that the management and the workplace care about how they feel."
Work? We are fighting on Twitter
All interviewees agree that workplaces have no choice but to put the mental health of their employees on the table, and this is especially true in Israel and particularly in recent times – when people often run out of motivation to keep going, their battery is drained.
"What specific mental struggle in Israel would you like me to discuss with you?" Dr. Avi Schneider, a researcher in the fields of work and organizations at the College of Management, leaps at me as if he was just waiting for someone to contact him and ask this question.
"How about the fact that from the morning I just sit and doom scroll through Twitter and don’t do anything, I only sent one email and it was also mediocre, and by four I’m already heading to Ben Gurion Airport to protest? When there’s a shitty situation outside, whether it’s COVID or a large-scale social event like judicial overhaul we are grappling with, it's much bigger than my burnout at work. WhatsApp groups are going wild and everyone is not busy with work but with the situation. If we were measuring work output today, as you and I speak, we would see that no one is working today, and this has been the ongoing reality for the past six months."
And perhaps working from home, which isolates us, is also to blame? "Absolutely. Humans have lived in groups since time immemorial. Initially, it was tribes, then extended families and then organizations. Around the last 20 years and during the pandemic, we started working from home and we’re finding that we miss community in its broader sense. People whom we gossip with and they about us, whom we drink coffee with, hate and love on a day-to-day basis, who would notice a new haircut or a new shirt.
The whole WeWork topic intensified for a reason, and people are willing to pay rent and endure traffic just to come and work together in offices. The cost of working from home is high in terms of mental well-being, and also in increasing employee turnover. The year 2021 - after a year of barely meeting people at work - had the highest ever rate of employee turnover since we started measuring."
But people do not want to return to working from the office. "My kids want to eat chocolate all day, does that mean it's good for them? Just because we prefer comfort, doesn’t mean it’s good or healthy for us."
Maya Ofek, global culture and HR specialist at SKAI, a company specializing in developing platforms for multi-channel advertising, also asserts that being present in the workplace helps improve morale.
"We have a psychological service in the company that we pay for, and it's open to all employees. But informally, part of our job in human resources is to visit the kitchen, walk through the corridors, get to know people by their names and by their professional and personal activities, and people open up and talk about what they’re going through, their feelings and their problems. Interpersonal conversations have become a very meaningful task lately."
Why recently? "Because people recently are demoralized, they find the discourse about what's happening in the high-tech world difficult, and hybrid work also has its impacts. We are now guided by the principle of working from the office three times a week, so that people can be together. People who come to the office infrequently are in a worse mood. I'm not a psychologist who can diagnose depression, but I do see lower morale in them."
Brosh from Riverside talks about a solution implemented in her company through an intra-organizational community and joint groups centered around a topic or idea, for example, a shared sports club, particularly since sport is known to be mentally beneficial, a reading club, or interest groups that gather to learn or expand their knowledge together.
Company managers receive training on how to identify depression and how to develop empathy, how to genuinely ask an employee how they are, and not just about their weekend.
"The managers were trained to add the word 'really' to scratch a layer deeper. A lot is discussed about feelings and home life, and it helps. When employees saw that we were interested, they came and said: 'Listen, we are falling apart, we are depressed,' and we immediately assured them that we are with them, we are not leaving, and we ensured they received good treatment, and those who needed it also took a vacation."
Dr. Schneider: "In the absence of a community in the workplace, we see a clear and interesting trend of residential buildings trying to create their own community, for example. There is an effort to establish urban communities; real estate projects market themselves as a community. In the last century, our social need and our need for belonging were largely met in the workplace. The big question is where people will satisfy their social needs in the coming century.
“Currently, it's a big question whether it will take place in the workplace, because there is very high turnover; people no longer stay together for 30 years, and at any given point, 50% of the employees have been in the workplace for less than five years. I don't have an answer. I just know that without addressing this need, we pay heavy emotional and mental prices.
“The social need at work is no less important than the functional need. Since the beginning of the 21st century, there has been literature suggesting that, for instance, workers who work from home progress less in the organization because they are not present within the social politics. Corridor gossip also serves the functional need of the organization."
Goldfein says that part of the solution is what naturally happened to many people following the pandemic and working from home. "The external environment contracted, and we had to learn to live differently overnight. Of course, this impacted our mental state, creating depression, but it also reintroduced the concept that we are supposed to think for ourselves and manage our lives from the inside out, rather than primarily obey and be driven from outside, as until then.
“This depression led to an awakening. People began to take responsibility, to see a therapist, to attend various workshops - the world is bursting with retreats and self-discovery journeys in numbers that did not exist before. Depression returns the responsibility for my career to myself."
The second part, she says, is in the hands of the employers. "To look at the employees and seek solutions on how to keep them happy, because happiness and productivity are linked. Organizations spend billions on the issue.
“For example, there is an artificial intelligence system that catalogs the skills required for each role, monitors employees in the organization and offers them roles that might make them happy, which are not necessarily related to their career. It doesn't look at knowledge and experience, but at motivation and at the attributes where you excel, and proposes roles that it thinks will make you happy. This is an example of how organizations can invest in focusing on the individual and making them happy."