By Dr Simon Walker MBPsP
Mental health and wellbeing risks have a significant cost to businesses beyond their impact on the individual themselves.
The Stevenson Farmer Report (2017) estimates that poor mental health costs UK employers between £33 billion and £42 billion per year, due to presenteeism, sickness absence and staff turnover. Similarly, Oxford Economics estimate that the UK GDP in 2015 could have been £25 billion higher, if not for the economic consequences of poor mental health. So, what can organisations do to protect the mental health and wellbeing of their workforce, and thus their business as a whole?
My organisation, STEER, has been studying the cognitive causes behind the link between mental health and productivity. An important new model of the mind has started to emerge from our data. We have shown that the mind has both what you might call a cognitive engine as well as cognitive steering. Our cognitive engine is roughly what we mean by IQ - how fast and accurately we can process abstract information. On the other hand, our cognitive steering is what regulates where we pay attention. Cognitive steering is what enables us to switch between tasks; adjust our response to different situations or people and use different social strategies to succeed in unfamiliar situations.
Steering and mental health
Studying students over a 10-year period, STEER showed that increased risks of mental health problems, such as not coping with pressure, developing anxiety or self-harm, were strongly linked to those educated to drive their minds fast, but not educated to steer.
One of the key findings was that, amongst the highest performing secondary schools, the minds of A level students behaved like motorway drivers - mentally acquiring and processing data quickly, but not developing the agility to adjust their pace, their direction and their engagement in differing situations. As a result, their engines were in danger of burning out, resulting in a sudden 'veering' off the mental health road.
On the other hand, students with healthy cognitive steering showed protective factors against such risks. Students who developed healthy patterns were more socially agile and emotionally flexible, which meant they were able to make more effective choices in the face of challenging situations.
As companies become increasingly focused on wellbeing, the model of speed vs steering is predicted to become more important. Companies which prioritise cultures of speed at the expense of steering are likely to see increased burn outs, crashes, casualties and along with these, costs. These are likely to be human, reputational and financial costs.
Steering and performance
The pandemic has provided the opportunity to embrace a new paradigm of mental performance. The emerging science of steering vs speed provides a language for investing in and measuring mental thriving without compromising mental performance.
STEER has shown that the ability to steer is trainable. STEER’s research suggests that organisations stand to gain significantly from having a workforce who are able to steer compared to those incentivised to only drive fast.
The three most important factors are:
Tracking employee’s current steering patterns to identify those at increased risk
Training employees to improve their steering using targeted signposting, applied and reviewed regularly through individual performance targets
Talking about steering at a cultural and business level; by introducing steering as an explicit language. This will enable managers to focus on and drive behaviours which will improve both mental health and performance.
By investing in their employee’s steering, businesses can not only safeguard the wellbeing of their employees, but also improve their long-term outcomes.
For free resources and more guidance about how your company can develop a culture of steering go to www.usteer.io