I sat down with my friend and peer, Margarete McGrath, Global Strategic Propositions Lead at Dell Technologies. Here you can read our discussion about mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, and how we as leaders must act decisively and holistically to mitigate the challenge of workforce burnout – and help teams recapture the joy of work.
Melinda Lee Ferguson: Thanks for joining me for the first of these sessions, Margarete. The post-pandemic world of work has thrown up more than a fair share of challenges—but it’s further opening the eyes of business leaders to the importance of mental wellbeing in the workplace. Would you agree?
Margarete McGrath: Definitely. It’s strange; at the moment, there’s this unidentifiable feeling that I think many people have—an underlying ‘blah’ if you will. Adam Grant from The New York Times coined the perfect term for it: ‘languishing’.
And for leaders (and individuals), I think recent events have made us re-evaluate our purpose and realize the importance of ensuring mental wellbeing. There’s been a significant shift in peoples’ mindsets, and if you have a team supporting you, even more so. We want to make sure that they’re all safe and well, while being effective and happy in work. I know we have talked about this before. How do you think peoples’ priorities have changed during the pandemic? Do you think their attitudes towards their jobs have shifted?
Melinda: There’s a much wider narrative now around wellbeing at work, which is such a shift from even a few years ago. The days of working 100 hours a week as a badge of honor are behind us. Instead, there’s a much bigger focus on employees having the freedom and flexibility (and boundaries) to bring together personal and work lives—and how business leaders are responding to that.
Over the past year, I’ve gained a richer sense of myself and my colleagues. I think relationships are more human due to the pandemic because we see into each other’s lives, into our homes—and we can understand the balance we need or the re-prioritization we’re making for children, pets, or elderly parents. And as leaders, it’s our job to put the right processes and culture in place that give people the support and balance they need to recapture the enjoyment of their jobs. But from a leadership perspective, it can be tricky to know what that looks like. What approach do you think we should take?
Margarete: It all comes down to empathy and communication. As leaders, we need to talk about wellbeing and help people recognize that wellbeing is a topic we can discuss—and that it’s a necessary part of driving strong business performance. The idea of wellbeing being separate from results is fading, so wellbeing needs to stay high on the agenda. We need to start measuring success in terms of people’s happiness. We are seeing a greater focus being placed on purpose and what our true priorities are beyond the balance sheet.
Historically, there’s been underinvestment in wellbeing and mental health services by many organizations. The pandemic has shone a light on that. So, I think we’ll see continued reinvestment in wellbeing, and it won’t be a sideline note – it’ll be part of our DNA. The leadership role will also encompass modelling the right behaviors.
Melinda: What do you think that could look like in practice?
Margarete: Well, on an individual level, trying to understand what motivates every employee – and talking about this as part of regular performance discussions for instance —will be crucial to creating long-term support and balance. We need to recognize how we can help people build the career and the life they want, and be open about how those two elements connect. And we need to keep exploring these ideas with our teams, so we don’t fall back into old habits.
On a broader scale, it’s about trialing new activities that promote staff effectiveness and happiness, like volunteering, team exercises, group sessions, cook-offs, quizzes, and initiatives like that. There’s a mental health community at Dell that we’ve got off the ground, including regular weekly yoga sessions and mindfulness practice. But more importantly, this acts as a community for people to share and connect with each other on the subject of wellbeing.
Leaders also need to model good behaviors, like Zoom-free Fridays and email-free weekends. I read an article the other day that found that 68% of workers say Zoom fatigue adds to their current stressors. So, putting good practices and boundaries around working patterns and technology will be key to helping employees handle long-term uncertainty and preserve work-life balance.
And as a business, it will be about improving collaboration with other organizations to evolve best practices. Coming out of the pandemic, no one’s got all the answers worked out. But there’s a level of openness and integrity that’s sincere in saying, “we can nail this. We will improve our work culture that we’re all trying to move towards”. But I also think it’s about role modeling – and being open about our own experiences and experiences regarding mental wellbeing as a way to drive change from the top-down. Leadership role modeling is key to driving this mental shift to a more compassionate workplace.
Melinda: I absolutely agree.For me, I’ve found that openly focusing on my own wellbeing helps me be a more balanced leader myself – whether this is admitting it’s a bad day and taking a break, taking time for a walk, or as you say, trying to stick to Zoom-free Fridays and email-free weekends.
Leaders are role models, so we need to start codifying the behavior for leaders moving forward. I think you and I agree that when we have a healthier lifestyle, we perform better. And hopefully, that means our teams perform better as a result.
But it’s more than that. Ensuring mental wellbeing isn’t easy, and we have to be really empathetic about that. It’s not always easy to take the time to go for a run or get out of the house when you’re stressed or overwhelmed. So as leaders, we need to walk the talk, create trust based on vulnerability, and drive openness from the top-down to create long-term changes in business culture.
For example, you sharing how much you enjoy going out for a run every day is important. Me sharing how I take the dog for a walk to protect my wellbeing and my positive psyche is important for other people to hear about.
Margarete: I agree, role modeling of behavior is critical for people to understand a sense of balance—and it’s so vital to driving real, lasting, long-term change. But I have to say, it doesn’t always come easily.
Melinda: That’s where enabling all of our leaders comes in. When so many people want to see proof of tactics, tools, or habits working before they adopt them, it can be easy for change to freeze, especially at that middle layer of leadership. But the people in these roles are critical for driving change.
So, we need to support this leadership layer and ask how they are adapting, what tools they need, and what support they need. We need to empower them as we continue on this journey and give them permission to change, share, and experiment. Because if we don’t, change won’t reach all levels of the organization.
And that could have a big knock-on effect. Younger generations will quickly choose what workplace they want—somewhere that empowers them to have a broader portfolio career and sees their wellbeing as a matter of importance.
Margarete: I couldn’t agree more, and I think we will be thankful to the younger generation for holding us to account in building workplaces that are more open, diverse and balanced.
Melinda: Thank you for joining me Margarete, it was fantastic to chat with you and hear your perspective.
Do you have any suggestions about how business leaders can prepare for the new world of work? It would be great to hear them, so leave your thoughts below.