Mental well-being in the digital workplace

by | Oct 26, 2017 | Digital workplace

I’ve worked through many technology changes in the workplace. Golf ball typewriters (1970), word processors (1978), IBM PC (1982), e-mail (1983) and Ethernet (1983) were just the start. I can well remember the day at Logica in 1990 when I was told, as a senior manager, that my secretary was being made redundant and I would be using an Apple SE/30. The Apple is still up in my loft! I can also remember the challenges of not just changing technology but changing business processes. For the first ten years of my career I made a point of being very respectful of the ladies in the typing pool. They were the nodes of every network in the office and could instantly tell me who was working on a particular report or committee. Some of these changes might seem small to you but there were casualties along the way as some people found they could not adapt. I suspect that many of them had a mental health issue and had developed coping mechanisms which were demolished by the new technology.

The people who vanished (including many good friends) came back into my memory today with the publication of Thriving at Work – A Review of Mental Heath and Employers on behalf of the UK Government. The report indicates that 300,000 people a year leave their employment through mental health issues. As we accelerate the digital transformation of our workplaces (DNV-GL is just one recent example) are we taking enough care to think through the mental well-being of employees, and also the extent to which employees are facing issues with accessibility.

I can make a very good case for a digital workplaces being a very good example of a ‘wicked problem’. In 2008 John Camillus noted (in the March issue of Harvard Business Review) that “wicked problems often crop up when organizations have to face constant change or unprecedented challenges. They occur in a social context; the greater the disagreement among stakeholders, the more wicked the problem. In fact it’s the social complexity of wicked problems as much as their technical difficulties that make them tough to manage.”

One area that concerns me in particular at present is the advent of software that tracks what everyone in the organisation is doing as a way of facilitating networking and collaborative solutions. I was pleased to see that Hubstaff, a vendor of activity-monitoring software, does present both sides of the argument for this process, though not all vendors take the same view. Have we really thought through the implications for individual employees? In my view the challenges are much more complex (take GDPR) and far less easy to solve. It may take months for issues about mental and societal well-being to emerge, especially as few companies seem to be involving occupational psychologists and psychiatrists. Monitoring and counselling need to start now, so that changes can be assessed before the digital workplace becomes pervasive. They may also differ widely across national and management cultures.

I was delighted to see the initiative that Jane McConnell has taken in developing a People Barometer. It should remind us of the importance of personal relationships and employee engagement in achieving a digital workplace in which every employee can achieve the very best they are capable of. It would be good to see companies who benchmark digital workplaces to take into account the human factors in their assessment. We might occasionally look back at the impacts of the Industrial Revolution, when no one cared about dramatic cuts in workforce numbers, especially among those who could least easily find alternative employment. I do hope that a future generation does not look back on the Digital Revolution in the same way. I would encourage you to read Thriving at Work, and consider what the response of your organisation should be.

Martin White