Could we solve the world’s problems by focusing on this one thing?

by | Nov 8, 2019 | Working

In my best professional opinion, the world has gone nuts.

In days gone by (and not so very long ago), the world of politics and business were pretty boring for most of us.

Not anymore.

Here’s a sample from just this week’s news:

Hong Kong protests plunge city into deep recession.

Revealed: NSW police strip-searched more than 100 girls including 12 year-olds.

Wages theft is a crime and penalties should reflect that.

Trio of impeachment testimonies to tell full story of Trump’s alleged wrongdoing.

‘Undervalued’ employee jailed for defrauding luxury cruise line of $3.7million.

McDonald’s boss fired after consensual relationship with employee.

We might soon be forbidden from falling in love at work. Do we want that?

Bank of England tells insurers to improve workplace culture.

Moriah College’s financial controller of 15 years accused of fraud.

Woman who gave Trump the finger elected in Virginia.

Working conditions in aged care homes are awful, largely because the work is done by women.

The ethics of the 4 day work week. It’s not just about the hours.

Oh, how I long for being bored!

But the genie’s out of the bottle now and there’s no going back.


What are the implications and what are the solutions?

Many and complex, naturally.

But as you might have to come to expect (and hopefully love ?) from me, I’m going to focus on the cost to human wellbeing as the key implication – and explore how prioritising better mental health and wellbeing is the solution. I’d wager 80% of the headlines above wouldn’t have occurred in a world where human wellbeing was top dog.
Big call, but there you have it.


The productivity impact of mental ill-health and low wellbeing

Another news headline this week was the Australian Productivity Commission’s call for major job reform when it released a report showing the economic cost of mental ill-health and suicide in Australia is up to $180 billion a year.

Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health conditions experienced by people and tend to affect people during their prime working years. One in five Australian workers is currently experiencing a mental health condition.

A 2014 ‘State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia’ report from BeyondBlue revealed 90% of employees think mental health is an important issue for businesses, but only 50% believe their workplace is mentally healthy.

And think what’s happened in the world since 2014!

Organisations with a positive approach to mental health and wellbeing have increased productivity, improved worker engagement and are better able to recruit and retain talented people. Higher levels of wellbeing are also linked to significantly reduced absenteeism, risk of conflict, grievances, turnover, disability injury rates and performance or morale problems.

Let’s explore this link between wellbeing and behaviour in a little more detail.


Burnout is a major conduct and culture risk

In October 2019, Australia’s corporate regulators warned of increasing scrutiny on how directors and officers of the companies are managing, measuring and reducing Non-Financial Risk (NFR).

The best bit of advice I can give is that organisations understand the risks that poor mental health and low wellbeing presents for behavioural conduct and risk. Behind most misconduct and under-performance issues, there’s usually a wellbeing issue lurking.

There’s clear evidence showing that as a result of either being emotionally exhausted and having ‘checked out’, or by making spontaneous and irrational decisions… those suffering from burn-out often reach and take riskier options without comprehensively analysing and evaluating alternatives due to underestimating the seriousness of consequences if things go wrong.

5 unfortunate behaviours commonly associated with burnout include:

  1. Withdrawal from responsibilities and isolation
  2. Procrastinating, taking longer to get things done, having clouded judgement
  3. Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope
  4. Taking out frustrations on others; intolerance; perceiving collaborators as stupid, lazy, demanding, or undisciplined
  5. Skipping work or coming in late and leaving early

Not great at any level – individual, team, business, customer or society.


An increase in disruptive and unethical behaviours (from leaders especially)

The behaviours associated with burnout are part of a broader category described as being ‘disruptive’.

As an umbrella term, ‘disruptive behaviour’ includes everything from minor workplace incivilities and lack of manners through to the more overtly negative and problematic:

  • turning backs or hanging up the phone before a conversation is over,
  • bullying or trying to publicly humiliate other staff,
  • making inappropriate comments (with sexual, racial, religious, or ethnic slurs),
  • physical aggression (such as throwing, hitting, and pushing).

The point?

Workplaces in which disruptive behaviours are more commonly observed are also significantly more likely to have:

  • poor teamwork culture,
  • a poor safety climate,
  • increased frequency of errors,
  • lower quality of work and:
  • higher rates of depression and burnout.

We’re not just seeing disruptive behaviours among the masses. In fact, as the news headlines suggest – they’re particularly prevalent among leaders, including the well-intentioned.

According to PwC’s 2018 ‘CEO Success Study’ report, 39% of CEO turnover was because of “ethical lapses”.

Why do we have such allegedly unethical behaviour occurring at such rampant levels at the top?

In a word, desensitisation and normalisation (okay 2 words).

Unethical behaviour occurs more frequently in direct accordance with the amount of exposure there is to incremental dishonesty. Developing an aversion to loss, increasingly challenging (to the point of impossible) performance goals and relentless time pressure are other causal factors related to unethical behaviour. This is especially the case when individuals are working from a low base level of wellbeing themselves.

Why CEOs (and humans more generally) are behaving badly more often than we might expect (or at least hope) is a complex issue. When analysed, 4 main rationalisations/justifications emerge.

Do you see any of these in the leaders you work with?

  • Self-serving altruism – where the dishonest behaviour also creates benefits for others.
  • Greed – where people compare their input-to-output ratio with those around them, and whenever perceptions of inequity arise, they will tend to take actions to (in their mind) restore equity.
  • Egocentrism –where ‘pro-self-oriented individuals’ care more about maximising their self-interest than about the outcomes they cause for others.
  • Self-justification – where justifying dishonest conduct leads to increased unethical behaviour, regardless of whether the justification is relevant or irrelevant for the unethical choice at hand.

In its 15th Global Fraud Survey (2018), EY uncovered startling findings on how ‘integrity’ is perceived in workplaces. When asked ‘who is responsible for integrity within the organisation?’ only 22% of respondents said that integrity is an individual’s responsibility. The other 78% said that corporate integrity is the responsibility of either management, the board, HR or the legal and compliance teams.

Heaven help us all ?


Human wellbeing as a solution to the majority of the world’s problems

It’s an oversimplification I know, but this is how I try to make sense of these headlines and phenomenon: they’re all situations which have come about as a result of systemic conditions which either foster or directly cause low wellbeing. This, in turn, drives an increase in disruptive behaviour within cultures that tolerate or accommodate the behaviour until ultimately, terrible consequences ensue.

I’m an eternal optimist by nature. I can see a positive future –a world where our political and business leaders understand and accept that one of the main reasons we are seeing a rise in disruptive behaviour is because of the increased levels of depression, burnout and other mental ill-health experiences.

One ‘key message’ for risk professionals is that if they are keen to see a reduction in non-financial risks they really should turn their attention to eliminating burnout and building workplaces which facilitate high levels of wellbeing for all.


Nurturing ethical organisations and leadership

Put even more simply: if we want to reduce conduct and culture risks and restore some moral compass to the business world, we need firstly to improve the mental health and wellbeing of all employees. As we’ve seen, there is significant upside opportunity to be had from investing in measuring and improving wellbeing.

The essential leadership question becomes something like ‘how might we create more human leadership and people-centred cultures where employees and leaders are more fulfilled and more fully engaged?’

If we can do this, we can bring down the mental ill-health statistics and shift the majority from languishing to flourishing. When we’ve achieved this, the incidence of disruptive, uncivil, unethical headlines will diminish.

But to do so, the wellbeing focus must be holistic – social, emotional, mental, intellectual and physical aspects of wellbeing are required for optimal conduct, behaviour and performance. So much of the bad behaviour, culture and conduct problems are occurring because humans’ basic needs for respect, security, appreciation, acceptance and compassion are being neglected.

You’ve heard me bang this drum before, but I’ll do it again here…

Leader-led wellbeing is essential to create a positive workplace culture where the emphasis is on sustainable high performance – not ‘results at any cost in any way’.

We can measure and manage leaders’ wellbeing risks with a strong methodology – and we’d recommend doing it within the GLWS framework as it’s been proven time and time again.

At last month’s AICD’s Essential Director Update in Sydney, ASIC Chair James Shipton launched a report aimed at improving the way non-financial risks (NFR) are managed and overseen. Poor ASIC is going to have its work cut out because I think there’s a long and very murky path ahead.

I’m so looking forward to my 45-minute speaking slot at the Risk Management Institute of Australia’s annual conference next week in Melbourne. Boy are those Risk Managers not going to know what’s hit them ?

For a sneak preview of my key messages, see the attached PDF.



The calls for job boosting reforms get louder – The Australian Financial Review

State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia report – TNS Global/Beyondblue

Creating a mentally healthy workplace – PricewaterhouseCoopers

Standards Council of Canada (2013). Psychological health and safety in the workplace — Prevention, promotion, and guidance to staged implementation. CAN/CSA-Z1003-13/BNQ 9700-803/2013.

A dollar invested in mental health care can return $65 in savings – Sydney Morning Herald

Workplace Bullying in Australia – Magee, C., et al. (2014)

PwC’s 2018 ‘CEO Success Study’ report (2018)

Global Fraud Survey (2018), EY

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