The importance of building a mindful work culture: mental health beyond hybrid work

Amidst the UK’s pilot trial of a four-day work week, statistics around employee health and wellbeing remain worrisome. While the four-day work week could show positive improvements on mental health, questions remain around whether or not reduced hours are enough to solve systemic issues surrounding worker mental health - one of the biggest the workforce has faced in decades. Désirée Pascual, Chief People Officer, Headspace Health, explains why it’s important to openly discuss mental health issues in the workforce and how businesses are re-evaluating their culture and respective programs to ensure mindfulness is at the core of the organisation.

Hands of an exhausted businessman in mudra close up view, highlighting meditation in office

In early June, headlines around the world centred on the launch of the world’s largest trial of the four-day work week. Experimenting with a model in which people work 20% fewer hours with no reduction in pay, this trial is just the latest evidence of a broad reassessment taking place around the relationship between employers and employees.

It is far too early to say what conclusions the trial will draw, but the breadth of companies engaging with it – from chip shops and robotics firms to asset managers – clearly demonstrates how seriously businesses are grappling with this issue. Indeed, in its recent annual Workforce Attitudes Toward Mental Health report, we at Headspace Health uncovered startling insights into how stubborn the issue of poor mental wellbeing has become for organisations. While attitudes in recent years have, unsurprisingly, been dominated by the pandemic, the latest research demonstrated that a gradual decline in COVID-19 related stress has been met by upticks in other areas.

With burnout, poor work/life balance, and issues with leadership all ranking highly as significant workplace stressors – and with 70% of employees saying that they have missed work due to mental health issues within the past year – the impetus for organisations to innovate is clear. The question is what direction that innovation should take.

The challenge of acting from uncertainty

This is, perhaps ironically, a particularly difficult time for leaders to take the kind of incisive action necessary to combat the enormity of the challenge. The nature of work has rarely experienced a pace of change of this magnitude, and in many cases both employers and employees are still navigating and adjusting to a new reality.

This adjustment is taking a long time, in part because the consequences have been multifarious. It goes without saying that learning to work around limits on social contact was a confusing and often painful process. For many office workers, however, the expansion of remote working has been a real boon, with more flexible attitudes around how and where work happens delivering benefits to quality of life.

It’s also important to remember that the deskless workforce, ranging from frontline medical staff to retail and hospitality workers, has likewise been impacted by new tools and working methods introduced to meet rapidly evolving social expectations – and here, too, the change has been both beneficial and damaging to the qualitative experience of work.

The outcome is that leaders must dive into both discussion and action around company culture; especially where that culture is now less clear or familiar than previously. It is difficult in this situation, even for organisations which are in the fortunate position of being able to invest significant time and money into improving employee wellbeing, to know what kind of impact a work-life initiative might ultimately have. Leaders must take a more holistic view of the worker, thinking beyond the immediate confines of the workplace and considering how to support their wellbeing as people.

The benefit of acting holistically

Success will depend on the mindset that HR professionals and business leaders bring to the table. Attempting to identify silver bullets which improve the situation by shifting working conditions en masse will likely only lead to unpredictable, partial outcomes – or, worse, a condition of choice paralysis which leads to nothing getting done at all.

The alternative is to lean into the new diversity of working lifestyles, and the diversity of reaction to those new lifestyles, with a strategy that engages people to understand what they need and communicate what isn’t working for them. For me, this is precisely why mindfulness has become such a powerful and popular idea in organisations, as it empowers people to develop their own healthier relationships with their jobs, colleagues, and themselves.

This goes far beyond the immediate context of work: while business leaders might be used to thinking in terms of a strictly professional relationship between employer and employee, the truth is that lives are more fluid than that, and our personal and professional lives impact each other deeply. When we build ways of supporting people’s mental wellbeing in the broadest sense, the benefits return to the organisation in the form of better communication, stronger collaboration, more focus, and higher engagement.

Another way of thinking about this is to look at more traditional forms of employee experiences, with benefits being treated as an ‘additional’, or ‘nice to have’ element beyond paychecks.  Creating a mindful culture, conversely, happens both above and below the worker: from underneath, a platform needs to be put in place to enable mindfulness practice and behaviours, while from above, leaders need to model positive openness and communication to inspire trust, engagement, and action. 

In this way, employees are put in the position to collaboratively build a healthier workplace – and whatever else changes, whether it is a transformed office environment, improved remote culture-building initiatives, or altered working hours - will change in a context where workers can be more fully engaged with what the future of their job should look like.

About the author

Désirée Pascual is Chief People Experience Officer at Headspace Health, where she uses human-centred design principles and data-driven inquiry to curate a joyful and resilient workplace culture where employees are empowered to do their best work. She was previously Chief People Officer of Ginger. Prior to Ginger, she was Chief People Officer at Carrot, where she built and led the company’s human resources function across the employee lifecycle.