Mental health in the virtual workplace: a cross-country check-up – Canadian Government Executive

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September 20, 2017

Mental health in the virtual workplace: a cross-country check-up

Have you ever met a virtual human being? By common definition, a workplace is virtual if geographically or organizationally dispersed co-workers depend on interactive technologies to communicate across the divides of space and time. While much research has provided us with data-based workplace health and wellness strategies, little attention has been given to collecting the data needed to understand the specific workplace “hazards” that can and will emerge when people rarely, if ever, meet in person. Human beings have not become virtual, but the nature of the human work experience has changed dramatically. The virtual workplace, a ubiquitous design element in our organizations today, represents both an opportunity and an ethical obligation to raise the bar in terms of rigor, and to discover how we can make this work experience psychologically healthy and safe. The assumption that our people have the right levels of skill to collaborate, innovate and build meaningful relationships across a multi-dimensional, virtual game board is held at a high cost. When the rules of the game do not specifically mitigate the human psychosocial risk (PSR) factors, “V for virtual” can quickly degenerate into “V for vulnerable.”

Organizations are dependent on virtually-dispersed teams. The 2016 Deloitte Human Capital Global Trends report, analyzing data from 130 countries, states, “sweeping global forces are reshaping the workplace, the workforce, and work itself.” One of the top ten trends grabbing the attention of executives interviewed in this study is organizational redesign. While redesign is not new, the report emphasizes that “hierarchical organizational models aren’t just being turned upside down – they’re being deconstructed from the inside out.” The virtual, networked workplace is replacing hierarchy as the organizational design of choice: it offers the best expertise from around the world, cutting across cultures, and providing deep insights into local economies and the lived realities of clients, partners and stakeholders. Despite the compelling vision to turn their organizations “inside out,” the executives interviewed in the Deloitte study did not indicate the need to partner organizational redesign with employee mental health, as complementary priorities. However, the shifting epicenters of power, no longer dependent on centralized headquarters, will require that employees at every level master specific new skills to adapt and thrive in a virtually connected workplace without walls.

The difference in leadership priorities between the private and public sectors is clear when it comes to employee mental health and wellness. In the federal Public Sector, Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick committed to making mental health a top management priority. He notified deputy ministers that they will be assessed on the health and well-being of their departments, but gave no specific target-levels. Herein lies the opportunity: we do not always think about geographical space, time-zone differences, dependence on interactive technologies and their impact on the human experience as organizational “stress factors,” but why not? Perhaps the virtual workplace has become so ubiquitous that we simply fail to recognize this in the context of a workplace. Perhaps more realistically, it is because the dispersed, virtual workplace impacts so many disciplines and governance structures, that there is no cohesive, singular literature defining its impact on the human experience. We know, however, that successful organizations perform better when they make employee mental health and wellbeing a priority.

The federal public service, the country’s single largest employer, is an obvious example of a virtual workplace. Statistics indicate that 58 per cent of its workforce are located in over 1,600 locations and in more than 180 countries. 42 per cent are located in the National Capital Region, where 72 per cent of the executive cadre work – still reflective of the highly centralized headquarter model. However, there is a notable difference between the public and private sector when it comes to reporting on the general state of mental wellness of its dispersed workforce.

APEX, the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada, has been actively monitoring the health of federal public service executives since 1997. While the 2016 survey results are not yet known, the portrait from the 2012 survey revealed startling results. Depression and anxiety disorders had doubled from the previous survey, with burnout, stress, absenteeism and presenteeism trending upwards. Across the federal government, mental illness among employees, equally characterized by depression and anxiety, accounts for nearly half of all health claims. The fact that there is no existing blueprint for a mentally healthy virtual workplace in the public sector is cause for alarm. If we look honestly at the statistics describing mental health and wellness in the public service, can we legitimately conclude that the virtual workplace does not contribute to stress, role ambiguity, incivility, work overload and harassment?

As an almost “invisible” organizational construct, virtual workplace stressors are often described as “challenges” in the literature, infographed as negative percentiles. Depending on the discipline and case study under review, the barometer of virtual workplace well-being is represented as a negative spectrum of 50-90 per cent less trust, less effective communications, less participation in decision-making, less effective relationships, and less role clarity. As early experts in the field of virtual organizations, Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps understood that “…everything that goes wrong with in-the-same-place teams also plagues virtual teams, only worse.” Herein lies the ethical obligation. The impact of the virtual workplace, already prescribed as the nuclei of the 21st century organization, is not being measured by our current mental health frameworks. But the red flags are waving.

Gathering and measuring information does not need to be complicated but it does need to be rigorously designed. Although frameworks exist to measure and map the complexity of virtual organisations, construction has not yet begun to define and scope the data points needed to build and test-drive a wellness measurement model for the public service. But we can still act. As a very basic point of departure, we need to put aside the organigram and reconceptualise the workplace as a network of reciprocating relationships, distinguished along three organizational axes: Natural, Human and Technological. Once these dimensions are understood in tandem, only then should we scope inwards to define ways to measure shared workplace factors identified in wellness frameworks such as the CSA Standard.

The first organizational axis of the virtual workplace is Natural, which recognizes that space and time cannot be intentionally removed as workplace hazards. This axis has no inherent human values or ethics. Rigorous attention must be given to mitigate the space-time divides that “warp” the capacity for humans to communicate and build healthy, reciprocating relationships. “Social distance,” a well-documented workplace stressor, is exacerbated by physical and temporal separation. It is a fact that coworkers separated by geo-temporal distances experience higher levels of social distance and lower levels of trust.

Research unanimously indicates that face-to-face meetings represent the base-line strategy to offset team dysfunctions that can emerge when geographical distances transform into psychological and social divides. Charles Handy, an early proponent that “trust needs touch,” questioned whether virtual teams could even function in the absence of frequent face-to-face interactions. Investing in travel is a simple tactical response, but can quickly degenerate into lost time, wasted money and broken relationships: travel alone is not a singular solution to bridging the natural divides of the virtual workplace.

The second organizational axis of the virtual workplace is Human, and recognizes that a heathy workplace requires rigorous attention to hiring, on-boarding and training our people with the tools and skillsets to map, measure and nurture successful relationships across the divides of space and time. Executive think tanks, consulting firms and organizational architects are increasingly advocating the development of skills to give all players, regardless of level, the capacity to sustain trusting relationships in between travel touch-downs.  Tools such as shared vision, design-thinking, relationship and decision mapping, emotional and social intelligence, trust charters, conflict resolution, cultural fluency, etc. are top on the radar. While these competencies have traditionally been side-lined as soft,” healthy virtual workplaces will increasingly deploy and measure these skills as reporting indicators in their wellness frameworks.

The third major axis of the virtual workplace is Technological.  In its simplest form, this axis requires strong workplace strategies to offset the psychological impacts of computer-mediated communications on human mental health. The fact is that technologies themselves cause less than 10 per cent of work-related stress. The impacts to human health resides in how people use these technologies, accounting for the remaining 90 per cent of the wellness equation.

As a very simple example, the e-mail protocol, so often thought as the medium of choice for pan-organizational collaborations, has been demonstrated to exacerbate conflicts through message ambiguities that can quickly degenerate into broken communications. The constancy of e-mail messaging is another workplace stressor. The “swollen” inbox has become the new time management crisis with e-mails being sent from one person to another, transferring expectations with a click of the keyboard. In the virtual workplace, without a clear strategy to improve human awareness of how technologies contribute to wasted time and other associated stresses, no one really knows who “has the monkey.”

The virtual workplace, a multi-dimensional, multi-cultural, multi-governance structure offers many opportunities to explore how we can make this experience healthy and safe. The sustained myth that providing access to more technological platforms will bridge the distances between work and place has been debunked regularly and rigorously. But it has not yet been systematically contemplated as a backdrop to workplace wellness. With one out of five workers experiencing mental illness, the fact that there is no existing blueprint for a mentally healthy virtual workplace in the public sector requires our full attention and immediate response. Our networks of employees and stakeholders have themselves become active contributors to our accountability narrative, and are vocal about how evidence gets reported to reflect their experiences of trust, engagement, relationships, and shared ownership. It is time we accept the challenge to define and measure this narrative into a story worth telling.

 

Deirdre Moore, M.Inf.Sci., B.A. Hons.

Deirdre has led and designed virtual organisations and collaborations in Canada, Mexico, and South America. Her Master’s thesis focused on virtual organisation leadership and wellness. She works for Natural Resources Canada.

 

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