The link between Employee Communications & Mental Health

Thousands of Matt Hancock WhatsApp messages gave us some insights into how [amongst other things] communications were used as a powerful tool to influence our feelings and behaviour during the lockdowns. It got me thinking about how organisations communicate with employees and the potential impact on their mental health and wellbeing.

Houston, we have an emotional business problem

Just to put the issue of mental health in the workplace into perspective, see the comment below from the World Health Organization (WHO):

‘More than half of the world’s population are currently in work and 15% of working-age adults live with a mental disorder. Without effective support, mental disorders and other mental health conditions can affect a person’s confidence and identity at work, capacity to work productively, absences and the ease with which to retain or gain work. Twelve billion working days are lost every year to depression and anxiety alone … Depression and anxiety cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year, predominantly from reduced productivity.’ World Health Organization, Mental Health at Work

In a recent survey conducted by Forty1 with YouGov, amongst 1,000 US and UK employees, about half of respondents told us that communications from their employers and leaders have become more important to them in recent times [55% of remote workers] – and just 6% said employee communications had become less important.

It’s hardly surprising given the challenges of remote and hybrid working, and the relentless change and uncertainty that characterise many of our personal and professional lives currently. There’s the ‘Cost of Living’ crisis; geopolitical unrest; the rise of the ‘Job-Eating-Robot’ [AI etc.]; oh, and an existential climate crisis. When 50,000 people around the world were asked about their personal fears as part of the Edelman Trust Barometer 2022, ‘losing my job’ came first, cited by 85% of people, above both climate change and ‘losing freedoms as a citizen’. This is all layered on top of a long-running, much-publicised ‘employee engagement crisis’, supported by vast volumes of data from specialist research organisations, such as Gallup.

Is part of the problem and the cure right under our noses? 

The same YouGov research provided powerful validation for something we already know instinctively, i.e. that good, carefully considered employee communications have the power to help our people feel and do better, by creating a sense of belonging, trust, empathy, and care. A majority of employees in large businesses told us that communications from their senior leaders can positively impact their motivation levels (59%); their feeling of being valued (54%); and their sense of purpose (55%). These are powerful numbers. But imagine if we could up those numbers, creating these positive sentiments even more frequently, widely, and consistently amongst our workforces.

Over the last year, as part of our ongoing work for a range of large organisations, we have talked to a further 1,000 employees globally. One of the themes that came out consistently was how many employees feel both frustrated and overwhelmed by a tsunami of employee communications, across a growing number of online channels. This barrage of well-meaning employee communications is leading many employees to be selective about what they read or view, for self-preservation purposes. The sad irony is that this forced ‘selective hearing’ is also causing some employees to experience real daily stress, worrying that they may have missed some of the important stuff! The implications for mental health and wellbeing are obvious.

How to make this powerful weapon work for our people

What an opportunity for those of us accountable for getting employee communications right – and that’s not just a department; it’s leaders, it’s managers, it’s culture.

Our research showed that despite big corporate investments in so-called employee communications and engagement platforms and systems, only 30% of employees believe that employee communications have improved over the last couple of years, and more than one in ten think they have actually got worse. Two in five say that employee communications only occasionally, or never, lead them to feel more motivated, purposeful and valued. We clearly need to evolve fast, as the stakes are too high. As ever, the evidence suggests that technology is an enabler, but definitely not a ‘silver bullet’.

Over the last year, the 2,000 employees we have spoken to across our YouGov and client-specific research have given us some useful guidance on how to make employee communications work better for people. So here are six ways we can enhance communications to have a more positive impact on mental health and wellbeing [and business success]:

1. Transparency & Authenticity

This is part of helping people to feel valued, respected, trusted, and connected to their leaders. When we asked employees what changes they would make to employee communications, two of the top three choices were: “Be more personal and authentic” and “Be more transparent about challenges, failures, and mistakes.” When we asked what would make them trust communications from leaders more, the top two answers were: “Clearer explanations for company decisions” and “Acknowledgement of challenges the company is facing.” Whilst it’s tempting for leaders to rose-tint everything for a short-term feelgood factor, in the long-term it undermines trust, which is essential for the positive relationships that play such a pivotal role in the mental health and wellbeing of your workforce.

2. Less is more

Employees have told us that they want their organisations to reduce the volume of employee communications and increase the quality and relevance. Increased volumes of communication are causing people to feel overwhelmed, frustrated and even stressed – not a great daily emotional diet for productivity! Getting it right comes down to brevity, quality of writing, better use of media, such as video – but also other elements such as content strategies, structures, and tagging. It also comes down to bolder, better governance, making sure the right content is shared in the right way, at the right time.

3. Conversations

Your people want to be involved in conversations, not just broadcasted at. They want opportunities to be heard, have a voice, and participate. “Provide more opportunity for conversation” was the other top three wish-list item amongst employees in terms of desired changes to employee communications.

4. Listening

As with any good relationship or conversation, it’s important to feel listened to. In our YouGov survey, just under half of employees told us that they feel genuinely listened to. We need to make sure that we’re constantly involving our people, enabling us to develop better employee communications and engagement systems, programmes, and content. Thankfully, the tools and techniques to make this happen are now readily available.

5. Involving Leaders & Managers

The 1,000+ employees we spoke to globally on behalf of our clients were clear that they really value communications that they receive from their line managers, who can personalise the message and provide useful context. We need to do everything we can to equip and empower line managers to be better communicators, to help their people feel more informed, appreciated, and understood. From a leadership perspective, employees tell us that they really miss interaction with senior leaders, and particularly in-person / in-real-life opportunities. Whilst it’s not easy, leaders should never lose sight of the emotional power of personal interaction.

6. Providing a ‘Sat Nav’

Employees want better guidance on where they should go to for what and what to expect from different channels. They want complexity and duplication reduced, so they can navigate their way around internal digital channels more easily. This saves valuable time and stress. Our businesses and systems are complex, so let’s make the signposting and guidance better.

As people with responsibility for communicating with employees, we have a huge collective opportunity – and responsibility – to create communications that have the most positive impact possible on the mental health and wellbeing of our workforces. If that doesn’t give us a sense of purpose and motivation to keep improving, I’m not sure what will.

To download a copy of the full Forty1 Sentiment Report 2023, click here. This is Forty1’s new, annual cross-sector study that investigates how employee communications really make people feel and identifies priorities to help leaders communicate more effectively with their people.







Get in touch

Copyright ©2023 Forty1