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The Largest Productivity Gain Most Companies Are Missing

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

I believe the single largest productivity gain staring us in the face is not technology, robots, layoffs, or new manufacturing methods – it is improving the mental health of our workforce. Do this, and you can, and will, unleash a massive productivity gain. People can run much faster and longer if they shed that backpack full of burden they have been dragging around, often in secret. So, whether you’re a hard-core conservative or a left-leaning progressive, you have huge motivation, aligned with your principles, to take my advice.

And the first place it often starts, is rejecting what I think is one of the stupidest management strategies: Expecting your team members to leave their problems at the door when they come to work.

Who can actually do that? Or be expected to do that? And why does anyone want that anyway?

I’ve written before about companies deserving the talent of their employees, moving away from the stereotypical and hierarchical (and mostly patriarchal) top-down squeeze of blood, sweat, and tears from every single employee. It is not a wise way to harness the talent of your team, and it is a terrible way to build a business.

What I didn’t specifically address is what comes up day after day in operating our restaurant company: The mental health and emotional wellness of our team matters way more than anything else.

Of course, to run a successful business, you need specific skills and expertise, organization and consistent management, smart budgeting and forecasting, good communications skills, and clients/guests/buyers who want what you’re creating. But none of that matters if some of your people are falling apart or don’t feel safe or supported in their day-to-day work. The best playbook in the world is worthless if the players are in elite physical shape yet terrible mental shape.

Excellent performance requires health. And mental health is health.

Mental Health & Emotional Well-Being

Here’s the thing. A lot of people struggle with their mental health, and that means it is highly likely a lot of people working with you and your company do too. According to the National Institutes of Health, nearly one in five U.S. adults lives with an identified mental illness. In 2017, that was 46.6 million Americans. There are many, many more who have not been identified, but who would likely meet the criteria for diagnosis. In addition, nearly 8% of adults reported having a substance use disorder, and of course, many don’t report. The estimated number of adults with serious suicidal thoughts is over 9.8 million – an increase of 200,000 in just one year.

In addition to diagnosable mental illnesses, we all know there are a lot of other life events and experiences, whether temporary or long-lasting, that impact one’s emotional state. Whether grieving the loss of a loved one or pet, struggling through the end of a rough relationship, coping with financial worries, managing a sick kid or aging parent, dealing with housing problems, or simply not getting enough sleep because you have an infant or go to night school, everything on this list can impact the well-being of your employees and their ability to do their job, even the simplest of tasks.

Putting your head in the sand and ignoring these glaring realities impacting the people in your company is not only stupid, it’s irresponsible. Yet, many companies merely cross their fingers, close their eyes, and hope for the best while simultaneously demanding success from their teams. Or even worse, they articulate specifically that you should keep your personal life, including any problems, to yourself, leave them at the door, and focus only on your job when you are at work.

Or else… go work somewhere else.

Ugh. That is totally unrealistic. Who can honestly leave their personal life, especially their problems, at the door? I know I can’t. And I don’t want to.

Everything Matters. Everything is Personal.

In our company, we say, “Everything Matters. Everything is Personal.” This means, we know and expect you to bring YOU to work, every day. All parts of you. Your smarts, expertise, energy, drive, hopes and dreams, as well as your worries, anxieties, fatigue, weaknesses, family love and angst, physical and mental health, and challenges.

The best way to deal with that wonderful and complicated stew that is each and every one of us is not to try and refuse it entry, but instead embrace it and support the process of dealing with it.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that in our company you can just behave however you like and screw whoever doesn’t like it. Far from it. Rather, it means we recognize each person as a whole, and we hold everyone accountable for each and every piece of themselves. BUT, they also know that they have the support of our entire team.

How does this actually work?

The best way to explain it is to go through some scenarios.

  1. Someone is repeatedly late to work. What do we do? Before we start reprimanding them and threatening their position, we ask, “why?” What is going on that is preventing that person from getting to work on time?

  2. Another person appears to be chronically angry, is acting out and/or yelling at co-workers (or even guests). What do we do? Well, of course we intervene immediately to create a safe environment for everyone. Our approach to our employee is first a question, “Are you okay? Where is the anger coming from?” We dig for a cause instead of just hammering them for a symptom.

  3. A very reliable employee suddenly starts regularly calling in sick or seems to be hitting the bar heavily after each shift or appears unkempt, down, lost. What do we do? We seek to understand why. What is happening in their life? What is their mental state? How can we help?

All of these can easily trace back to one of Stephen Covey’s famous points fromThe 7 Habits of Highly Effective People®, “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood®.” In the current business world, this decades-old principle still remains one of the most innovative, especially as it relates to mental well-being, the success of our employees, and of our business.

Real Business Innovation in 2019 Recognizes Mental Wellness

The single best way to achieve the esteemed “productivity gain” in a company, or achieve success across your entire enterprise, does not come from a new computer, a new robot, or a new method. Try a 50% improvement in the mental health of your workforce, and you’ll see incredible gains in productivity. I’m not a scientist or researcher, so it would be great to have someone from Harvard Business Review to back up my statement with real evidence. But, I have all the evidence I need. I’ve been participating on, building, and leading teams for almost 30 years, and I am certain that the elite results are achieved when mental health and emotional wellness is prioritized and addressed, so that the team members are unleashed.

If you’re the smartest data scientist around, and can develop the algorithms for Watson or Alexa, but your anxiety prevents you from talking in meetings or your moderate depression makes it hard to get out of bed some days, all that aptitude and ability you have been fostering will never be maximized until you find a way to stop lugging around that 75-pound mental health burden backpack. If your mom is sick and you’re struggling with ways to support her and pay your bills, there is no way you are eagerly drumming up new business contacts or able to creatively brainstorm the company’s next advertising campaign. All of these scenarios are only made worse in a company that looks away, that asks you to leave your problems at the door, that doesn’t seem to care about you, only your work.

Real innovation is seeing people for who they are, connecting with your employees, and creating a safe environment for everyone, every single day.

Trust me, innovate with mental health, and you’ll see a surge in all sorts of other innovation and productivity.

In this environment, everyone can excel together. Everyone can benefit from participating in building the business. You aren’t building it on the backs of your team. You are building it in collaboration with every single member of your team. When they excel, the company excels. That’s real business innovation in 2019.


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