The Never-Ending Search for Health and Agency at Work
When it comes to health in the workplace, most people immediately think of physical health, including preventing accidents, slips, falls, etc. However, research shows that worker´s mental health is just as important, if not more so, than their physical health.
For example, take an office worker who is supremely unhappy with their job. They’re so sad, in fact, that they become clinically depressed and have severe bouts of anxiety. They start showing up late, are disengaged on the job, and call in sick frequently. Some may even consider self-harm or harming their co-workers.
Most would agree this is an unhealthy situation. While physical health may be more readily observed, the fact is that employee´s mental health is just as vital to an organization as their physical health. The question then becomes; what can be done to improve the overall mental health of all employees?
There are of course, a number of different avenues to improving mental health, resilience and wellbeing. But one that is so often overlooked, but which is becoming ever so critical in the modern workplace, is the importance of Freedom of Expression.
Freedom of Expression and the Mental Health Connection
In The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 10 declares that the right to freedom of opinion and expression is one of the fundamental human rights. Indeed, it may be the most essential human right, as freedom of expression ties deeply into the human psyche.
But what, exactly, is freedom of expression, and why is it so crucial to a person’s mental health? The answer lies in the fact that, while an employee is under the organization’s auspices for whom they work, they are expected to do their work and be productive. However, they are still an autonomous individual with their own opinions, beliefs, and values.
Freedom of expression is the right to express those opinions, beliefs, and values without fear of reprisal, oppression, and censorship. However, the challenge for an employer is to balance an employee’s individual right to expression with the organization’s values, rules, and expectations.
Employees Do Not Have a Constitutional Right to Free Speech
One of the most surprising facts for many people is that, while on the job, freedom of speech laws of the outside world don’t always apply. Even though some may disagree, as an employee, the right to freedom of speech is relatively limited. For example, an employee who publicly says or writes something inflammatory about the company can face legal charges.
Of course, the average employee is never going to do anything of the sort. Many enjoy their job,but, without the freedom to express themselves, languish at their jobs while anxiety and depression take their toll. That’s a problem that has with nothing to do with free speech but rather an employee feeling that their voice, opinions, and ideas have no value.
Methods to Empower Freedom of Expression
Giving employees the ability to fully express their ideas and opinions on the job isn’t something that happens naturally for most organizations. Frankly, it’s ingrained into most workers that “rocking the boat” isn’t a good plan (especially if they want to remain employed).
In the industrial age, we had a very different approach to work. People who got hired to work on a factory line, exchanged their time and physical labor for money. There was no need nor expectation that they would have an input into the systems or procedures. But now, we are no longer in the industrial age. Times are very different.
In the current pandemic/post pandemic workplace, more and more employees are re-evaluating their work and lives, with many opting out of the workforce entirely (heard of the Great resignation?). Those who remain are demanding greater flexibility, greater collaboration, and greater opportunity to contribute their perspectives and ideas in the workplace. At the very least, to be our selves at work. Many workplaces too, are providing support for the ´whole person´, recognizing that as human beings, the personal does impact the professional and vice versa.
For that reason, an organization must make a point of allowing their employees to express their ideas, needs, wants, and any problems they’re having on the job. This is a key element of a psychologically safe workplace. More importantly, action has to be taken that proves their opinions and ideas are being taken seriously. Below are a few excellent methods to do that, including:
Show That Speaking Up is a Positive, Not a Negative
Allowing employees the regular opportunity to give feedback without fear of reprisal is one of the best methods of allowing them to express themselves. The truth is, speaking up takes courage. Getting valuable feedback when that happens can be an incredible ego booster that keeps an employee engaged, happy and productive.
Create a Culture of Feedback in the Workplace
A quick online search for the term “feedback” will reveal millions and millions of results. Why? Because humans love giving their feedback about anything and everything, especially when they feel that they have something to add to the conversation.
This holds true in the workplace as well, where it’s guaranteed that many employees would love to give their feedback about a wide variety of work-related topics. The key as an employer is to provide them with an open forum to do just that.
This requires much more than a simple “Suggestion Box” on the wall, it is about communicating that the feedback is heard, genuinely considered, and acted upon in one form or another.
When your organization has a culture of seeking feedback and taking action on it, the response from employees is highly positive. One reason may be that, by allowing unfettered feedback, an employer (or manager) showcases their humility. This, in turn, elevates the status of the team member who was seeking feedback. The result is a standard of psychological safety that doesn’t just allow for freedom of expression; it actively encourages that expression on behalf of all employees.
Look at Complaints and Grievances as Important Data
It’s easy to see complaints and grievances as nuisances, especially if they aren’t particularly true or correct. On the other hand, if you look at the information provided as data, you can often learn valuable information that, in the end, helps the organization.
Indeed, many a positive change has come from an employee expressing themself about a negative situation. Without freedom of expression in the workplace, these positive (and frequently profitable) changes would never occur.
Employee Agency and Mental Health Are Closely Tied Together
By ´agency´ we mean personal agency – the sense of confidence that staff member has that they can influence, and make an impact on their world – in this case, the workplace.
At the end of the day, an employee’s agency and mental health while on the job are closely related. One compliments the other, with more fulfilled, engaged, and productive employees as a result.
For these reasons, giving all employees a voice is vitally important to an organization’s success. Yes, limits and structure need to be put in place, but the resulting changes will contribute to a workplace where mental health issues are low, and satisfaction levels are high. That’s a win-win situation for all involved.
In short, when an organization allows its employees to unleash their voice, the entire organization benefits. In the never-ending search for health and agency, freedom of expression in the workplace is a proven, profitable solution.