Connecting in a Disconnected World: Mental Health in the Workplace

As the pandemic continues, we now face another crisis: a burnout crisis. What is the solution? Where can leaders and managers turn? Barry Pokroy and Dave Stevens discuss the profound impact of disconnection, its link to burnout, and share insights for managing this crisis.

Canadians from coast-to-coast-to-coast continue to get news of seemingly never-ending restrictions, lockdowns and wave after wave of cases—each causing a collective shudder. The public, already in pandemic fatigue, are again asked to dig even deeper into their limited pool of emotional resources. And the cracks are showing—with increased symptoms of disconnection, burnout, job dissatisfaction, anxiety, depression, and numerous other mental health challenges.

Barry Pokroy

Barry Pokroy is an Advisor with B. Riley Farber. Trained in clinical psychology, he has in-depth knowledge and experience in adapting the insights of psychological theory to the demands of the corporate environment.

The need for connection

Let’s take a short detour. What do you know about drug addiction? For years, many believed in the idea of chemical hooks—hooks that catch and hold the user to want more. This idea was popularized by a study that put rats in empty cages with two water bottles, one with only water and the other, water laced with heroin. Of course, the rats craved the water with drugs and almost always killed themselves quickly, leading the researchers to believe chemical hooks were responsible for the addiction.

Years later, psychologist Bruce Alexander noticed a flaw in these early experiments—the rats were alone in empty cages with no connection to others. So, Alexander ran another study where rats were put into cages with other rats and a host of living essentials—food, toys, and tunnels. Only then did he introduce the water laced with heroin, and the results switched. Most of the rats ignored it and none of them used it compulsively. You see, the problem of addiction wasn’t the chemical hook, it was the empty cage—the social isolation.

Connection crisis

What Alexander showed was that the opposite of addiction is connection. Without it, we are starved of a crucial coping mechanism in our lives. It’s what we’re wired to do to survive as humans—we connect with others. Currently, we are in a connection crisis, and it is affecting everyone, everywhere.

Managing a crisis: a 3-step approach

What do we know about managing a crisis?

Step 1 – As with addiction, the first step is to admit there’s a problem. Organizations and leaders need to hold up their hand and commit to tackling the symptoms of disconnection and build psychological resilience in their workforce. Pretending there isn’t a problem eliminates the possibility of taking control of it.

Step 2 – The second step is to put resources behind the crisis. When Portugal was facing an addiction crisis in 2000, the country’s leadership decided to decriminalize all drugs. Most importantly, they took all the money they used to disconnect addicts from society (i.e., arresting and detaining them) and spent it instead on reconnecting them, including setting up microloans for small businesses and running a massive program for job creation. The result has been a significant decrease in Portugal’s addiction statistics in every study since.

To battle the crisis we’re currently facing, organizations must do the same—commit time and human resources to solving the problems that are causing the crisis.

Step 3 – The third step is for leaders to become a critical part of the solution. In Dying for a Paycheck, Jeffrey Pfeffer states that, “according to the Mayo clinic, your supervisor is more important to you than your family doctor.” The book also states that “the American Institute of Stress maintains that job stress costs US employers more than $300 billion annually.”

This was all before the pandemic, so organizations are at an even more pivotal point now. To avoid a potential burnout crisis, immediate action needs to be taken now.

Connection is the antidote

Humans are wired to connect. It is woven into our DNA. Though our psychological structures can unravel during times of crisis, it only strengthens the need to make connection a top priority—as leaders and as organizations. Finding ways to facilitate connection will have a massive impact in creating a healthy workplace both now and in the future. Leaders should focus their connection in three areas:

Connect with self

When was the last time you “switched off” from work? Planning short burst self-care strategies into your daily routine is a cornerstone of resilient leadership and energy renewal. These include deliberate pauses for breathing and reflection, doing something that you enjoy and that energizes you, and time away from your desk.

Connect with team 

Talking serves a powerful psychological function – it helps us gain psychological and emotional mastery over our experiences. Listening to your team’s personal and professional concerns and challenges will go a long way in preventing burnout. According to Development Dimensions International’s Global Leadership Forecast 2021, the number-one factor that influences burnout is leaders’ ability to demonstrate empathy.

Connect with a deeper sense of leadership purpose

The study also found that leaders who spend more time managing than interacting are 32% less engaged in their roles, 1.5 times more likely to feel “used up” at the end of the day, and twice as likely to leave the organization within 12 months. To counter this, leaders should prioritize time for valued person-to-person interactions focused on asking intentional questions and sharing appreciation.

While our external reality may be out of our control, our internal reality is not. These are difficult times in the workplace, but there is a solution within reach—individuals and organizations just need the knowledge and ability to access it.

Connecting in a Disconnected World

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Our Contributors

Barry Pokroy is an Advisor with B. Riley Farber. Trained in clinical psychology, he has in-depth knowledge and experience in adapting the insights of psychological theory to the demands of the corporate environment. Barry can be reached at [email protected] or at 416.496.3079

Dave Stevens