Office '22 : defusing the ticking mental health timebomb

Workplaces across the globe are facing a mental health crisis of unprecedented scope, as the effects of almost two years of anxiety, uncertainty and fear will transition into another period of flux as we enter 2022, a leadership expert says.

Debbie Goodman, Group CEO of Jack Hammer, a global group of executive search, talent advisory and leadership coaching companies based in Cape Town, says while on the surface an attitude of keeping calm and carrying on has prevailed until now, people, regardless of their level in the corporate hierarchy, are not okay. As a result, companies are increasingly putting in place pro-active mental wellbeing and support programmes well above and beyond anything they have done in the past.“

Through our work in the USA, South Africa and the rest of Africa, it is clear that some companies are taking this matter very seriously, devising specific mental health and wellbeing strategies and policies in recognition of the problem.

Additionally, some companies are taking the novel approach of appointing Chief Wellness Officers – a position we predict will become just as important as any other in the C-Suite in the future,” Goodman says.

She says 2020 was a year of upheaval and swimming against the tsunami of challenges that arose in an effort to survive. When 2021 came, there was hope that things would improve and normalise to some degree. But now, with 2022 on the horizon and reality hitting home that equilibrium is likely a long way off, it has become crucial that substantial interventions are put in place to support everyone in the workplace – from entry level staff to the Chief Executive.“

It is not necessary to rehash statistics to demonstrate the extent of the crisis – everyone is aware of the rise in mental health concerns, skyrocketing suicides, the increase in people seeking medication for depression and anxiety in the past two years. As we return to the hybrid workplace in January 2022, we will all be bringing the trauma of the past two years with us, embarking on another year of ongoing uncertainty.“

So where before, some progressive companies recognised the importance of the mental wellbeing of their staff not only from a humanitarian and empathetic position, but also in recognition of the importance mental health plays on productivity, creativity, teamwork and ultimately the success of a company, we now have a situation where mental health has moved from its periphery position into a front and centre issue.”

Goodman recommends that companies incorporate their approach to mental health support into their 2022 planning. “Previously, the occasional mental health day concession or initial therapy support would cut it, but that is no longer sufficient,” she says.

In her latest book, Amazon #1 Business Best Seller The Living Room Leader – Leadership Lessons for a Hybrid Future, Goodman provides advice on the short-to-medium term future of the office after two years of Covid learnings, giving concrete suggestions about ways in which companies can start to implement an holistic mental health and wellness support programme right away.“

Probably the most salient insight that can be taken from this time is that we all have a basic need for routine and certainty in order for our nervous systems to be able to function optimally. Constantly being in a state of high alert, and expecting danger and upheaval as a matter of course, do not make the best foundation for workplace excellence. It is therefore incumbent on leaders to provide as much safety and certainty to their teams as possible.”

Goodman says companies can start with the following framework:

FLEXIBLE ROUTINESWhether the company is all remote, all-in at the office, or has a hybrid setup, make sure that the arrangement is linked to a routine, albeit a flexible one. Even if companies allow workers to choose what works best for them, this trust should not equate to a free-for-all. Total autonomy would be counterproductive and destabilising for everyone. So the sweet spot is combining boundaries and structure with a good dose of flexibility.

COMMUNICATIONLeaders must communicate regularly regarding (realistic) milestones and expectations so that people can plan their lives and achieve a greater degree of certainty. Even where things remain uncertain, this should be shared as well. A lack of communication creates anxiety whereas frequent engagement, even if it is to share that the jury is still out on a specific matter, puts people at greater ease.

REASSURANCEPeople continue to be fearful about the future and particulalry job security, many constantly living with the fear that this day could be their last, particulaly if a company has already undergone retrenchments. Although it may be impossible to offer any real certainty about the future, let your people know they can be assured of their jobs under x, y and z conditions, which will go a long way to having them breathy more easily. It also helps to shift the focus from anxiety over the future to the deadlines of the day.

MODEL AND NORMALISEMany, if not most, leaders will be able to answer yes to at least two or three of the following questions: Are you feeling stressed? Anxious? Burnt out? Exhausted? Depressed? Generally under the weather? Fearful?Without hesitiation, many, if not most, of your staff will suffer from some of these as well.It is therefore important to normalise the fact that you as leader are also impacted by these issues, and model positive responses to address mental health.The language of mental wellness and mental illness has been mostly skirted around in modern times, with people far more willing to acknowledge and take time off work for physical ailments rather than mental ones. But as leaders, it is time to take action and ensure both physical and mental challenges are recognised and accommodated without stigma, Goodman says.


  • Regular personal care calls/ check ins

Making an overt effort to connect became the approach during Covid, helping companies survive and overcome hurdles. As the months went on, business as usual started to prevail once more, but making regular personal connection will be crucial in the coming year to identify issues early and arrange for support timeously. 

  • Regular wellness breaks and more leave

Some smart companies have already instituted enforced breaks, like designating the last Friday of every month as a leave day for the whole company. Others are offering unlimited leave (with conditions), rotating leave for teams, or half days. Figure out a leave strategy that might work for your organisation, and try it out for a period. You need not make it a company policy forever, just beta test it and see how people respond. 

  • Counselling and wellness support

For companies with budget and infrastructure, it is a great step in the right direction to invest in professional psychological counselling at company expense for those who need it. Another option is group support sessions facilitated by trained coaches. The manner in which this benefit is provided is critical – the promise of confidentiality and non-judgment must be ironclad and a solid bedrock of trust in relationships between management and staff is essential.