“Vax”: According to Oxford Languages, creator of the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s the 2021 word of the year. That announcement might have come as a surprise to those in the workforce who might define the past year with another word: “burnout.”
It would be easy to dismiss the current state of workplace mental health as yet another side effect of the pandemic. After all, Glassdoor reported the percentage of reviews on its site that mention burnout jumped 100% in 2021, and the proportion of employees who cited mental health increased 143%.
But this situation didn’t just come about during the pandemic. American workers’ rates of daily stress, worry, sadness, and anger have been trending upward since 2009, according to Gallup. And these feelings translate into a burgeoning business issue.
Research from the National Safety Council found organizations spend more than $15,000 annually on each employee experiencing mental distress, between healthcare services, days lost, and the costs of turnover. Even the employees who push themselves to show up every day despite mental health struggles cost a business: A stressed, anxious employee is a less productive, less engaged employee—and this “presenteeism” is estimated to cost employers three to four times more than workers who don’t show up at all.
Many organizations now see the business implications of the issue. In our survey on mental health fielded in October 2021, 94% of business leaders agreed: Employee mental health impacts a company’s overall business results, either positively or negatively. Almost two-thirds (63%) said it had a big impact on business results.
But mental health is a complex, highly personal issue. Even organizations that are responding to it don’t feel they’ve solved it: Most respondents to our survey (58%) said they’re addressing employees’ mental health and wellness but could be doing more or said they’re only somewhat addressing it.
So what has to happen? How can organizations support their employees—and manage the business risk?
We believe there is no single solution or quick fix to this challenge. But we also believe businesses with a digital operating model are better able to support their workforce’s mental health.
Why? Because a digital business is human-centered and data-driven.
Digital businesses put people at the center of everything, from strategy to operations to experience, and use data to make better, faster, smarter decisions. These qualities don’t only help customers and end-users. They also can help employees, allowing organizations to provide a more rewarding employee experience—and lessen the potential for burnout and mental distress.
Here are three specific ways that digital businesses support and foster employee well-being.
A digital mindset allows organizations to constantly refine and improve products, solutions, strategies, and processes—which is a good thing for innovation and business results. But it can also inadvertently affect employees’ engagement, mental wellness, and happiness at work.
Without proper management and leadership, constant change can be exhausting. As high-level strategies and processes shift, employees may begin to believe business goals are unachievable—even Sisyphean—which makes it hard to find their own contributions fulfilling or see them as valuable. Plus, when the work is never really “done,” how do you know when you can take a break or take time off?
Digital leaders, on the other hand, give employees more than just a vision—they prove strategies are working, even as they change. They rely on data-driven insights and agile workflows to make smarter decisions, solve problems faster, and design better products.
This approach helps teams target and hit smaller milestones along the way to big-picture goals, proving their work is meaningful to the business and giving them the motivation to keep up the momentum. An operating model that allows for and celebrates quick wins can also reduce the potential for burnout, as employees see the impacts of their work more frequently. Employees can feel empowered to schedule time off and take breaks more frequently—as massive “launch” dates and deadlines become relics.
Digital operating models also help keep employees more engaged on an individual level. Leaders continuously gather data to track performance in real time, measuring teams and employees on product development and improvement instead of project status and completion. They can recognize and celebrate individual achievements and great work as it happens—helping employees feel valued on a more regular basis instead of at project completion.
Digital organizations consider the end user’s experience in everything they do. They apply the principles of human-centered design to create products and solutions that customers need, want, and love. And they design workflows around the employee, who is an important stakeholder in experience design. Plus, what’s good for the employee ultimately is often good for the customer.
Consider a potential scenario from the healthcare sector. Healthcare service providers employ member advocates to help members navigate their benefits, find the right care, and lower their costs. In an ineffective workflow, member advocates manually navigate dozens of complex platforms every time a customer calls or chats with a question—perhaps because the organization thinks it is cheaper to stitch together multiple systems and easier to add on rather than find something new.
But such a workflow is neither cheaper nor easier in the long run. Why? More money and time spent training people on the complexity. Lost productivity and higher cost per interaction. Potentially inaccurate or inconsistent information given to customers. Lower employee retention rates, higher turnover, and lower member satisfaction because everyday tasks are inefficient and frustrating—for both employees and members.
A digital business applies the principles of human-centered design to fix this workflow. For example, an organization could conduct user research—asking questions, gathering feedback, and scheduling “ride-alongs” next to member advocates—and analyze data on average call time, first-call resolution rates, net promoter scores (NPS), and other key metrics. This provides the data-driven insights needed to build a workflow around member advocates.
What might that look like? For example:
Processes designed around how people really work reduce stress and allow them to perform their jobs more effectively—lowering the likelihood they’ll burn out and quit. What’s more, human-centered workflows translate into a better customer experience—because employees can focus their energies on customer satisfaction and product innovation. It’s a 360-degree approach to keeping humans at the center of it all.
Hybrid environments have made it clear: Technology can negatively impact employees’ mental health and contribute to burnout and workplace stress.
But it can also be part of the solution.
Digital businesses view technology as a way to achieve goals and solve business challenges, not just as something to have—and it can be applied not just to customer-facing issues, but also to employees’ workflows and daily lives. Consider:
In our survey, 37% of business leaders surveyed said they thought automation and AI would help to improve workplace mental health.
That’s because these technologies can help people be more productive and effective. In a study from Canadian telecom company TELUS, respondents said using bots for repetitive job functions would allow them to work on more complex tasks (60%), use the extra headspace to think about new ideas (52%), and connect with colleagues more effectively and frequently (47%).
They can also help people feel less drained by their jobs. Consider the use of AI with natural language processing (NLP) in electronic medical record systems, intended to prevent doctors from burning out due to an overload of paperwork.
Beyond productivity and efficiency, automation and AI can boost employee fulfillment, equity, and engagement—especially when it comes to repetitive, time-consuming processes. Ask any data scientist embarking on a project: Would they rather have automated dashboards that use AI for data entry, or take the time to handle it themselves before they can begin finding meaningful insights and making an impact?
Sometimes business decisions seem to exist in a “black box” for employees further down the ladder—so when goals or priorities shift, employees aren’t always clear on the “why.” If they don’t understand the reasoning behind such decisions—especially the ones that impact their own lives—they can start to feel disconnected and disengaged.
When correctly designed, data analytics engines are unbiased and impartial. Modeling scenarios using data thus allows decision-making based on facts and the business case—not because something seems like it’s the right move.
And making decisions based on data-driven insights isn’t only good for the business. Data also helps leaders communicate changes by showing how a decision was reached. That makes it easier for employees to understand business decisions, even if they weren't part of the decision-making process.
Think about how people talk about “unplugging” so they can “recharge” during their “downtime,” as if humans can only rest when—like machines—they’re disconnected and shut off. Pressure to always be “on” can be a result of workplace culture and individual managers. But it can also come from external factors such as the proliferation of digital channels designed to elicit real-time communication.
The ability to be constantly available and reachable is a double-edged sword. It can reduce productivity, prevent people from focusing on deep work, and affect mental well-being. In our survey, 21% of business leaders said difficulties “unplugging” from work and balancing work and personal responsibilities had the biggest negative impacts on their own mental health this past year.
In an effort to reclaim work-life balance and focus, some companies have begun experimenting with asynchronous work, supported by new digital communications platforms entering the market, such as:
Our world has seen so much progress in the last few decades—even in just the last few years—that our brains haven’t yet evolved to keep up. And the realities of living and working in such a challenging, ever-changing environment are clearly taking their toll on our mental health.
But there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic. The progress we’ve made has also armed us with the strategies and tools to overcome current (and future) challenges and transform the way people work. With a digital mindset, an organization can better support employees’ mental health, reduce burnout, and help people feel more fulfilled and engaged—because a digital business is also a human-centered, data-driven business.