Episode 77

full
Published on:

3rd Jun 2024

Workplace Mental Health Awareness with Ashish Kothari and Genevieve Bonin

Do you know how stressed people are at work these days? Studies show a startling fact: nearly 40% of young workers feel they're on the edge because of job stress. It's clear we have a serious issue that's hurting both people's well-being and their job performance. 

Could our work environments be contributing to the problem? In this episode of the HAPPINESS SQUAD Podcast, Ashish Kothari and Genevieve Bonin explore this critical topic.

Genevieve Bonin is the Managing Director and partner at Boston Consulting Group. She is a seasoned leader with over 27 years of experience in the public and private sectors, specializing in solving complex problems and leading transformational change. 

At BCG, she leads the global public sector practice with a focus on Defence and Security and heads the Canadian Public Sector practice. A recognized thought leader in diversity, equity and inclusion, mental health and well-being, and leadership, she has authored numerous articles and delivered keynotes on these topics.

Her military background as a Naval Engineering Officer in the Royal Canadian Navy deeply influences her ongoing commitment to philanthropy, particularly in supporting troops, veterans, and their families. She serves on several boards, including the True Patriot Love Foundation, Invictus Games 2025, and the Royal Ottawa Hospital Institute for Mental Health Research.

Genevieve holds professional titles as a Fellow Certified Management Consultant and Professional Engineer and has been honored with the Telfer School of Management Philanthropy Award and the Veterans Affairs Ministerial Medal for her contributions to society. 

In this conversation, Ashish and Genevieve discuss the importance of ongoing attention to workplace mental health and the need for businesses to prioritize improving their employees’ well-being and productivity at work.

Things you will learn from this episode:

• Combating Workplace Burnout

• Research on Mental Health Among Canadian Workers

• Determining Workplace Stressors

• The Concept of Generative Leadership

• Organizational Strategies for Mental Health

Resources:

• Genevieve Bonin at Boston Consulting Group: https://www.bcg.com/about/people/experts/genevieve-bonin 

• Genevieve Bonin on Twitter: https://twitter.com/genbonin?lang=en 

• The Royal Mental Health Center: https://www.theroyal.ca/research/biography/genevieve-bonin 

• The Next Frontier of Workplace Culture: https://www.bcg.com/publications/2023/workplace-burnout-costing-canadian-companies-billions 

• Why Canada Needs Generative Leaders: https://www.bcg.com/publications/2022/generative-leadership-aiding-canadas-public-sector 

Books:

Hardwired for Happiness: 9 Proven Practices to Overcome Stress and Live Your Best Life.https://www.amazon.com/Hardwired-Happiness-Proven-Practices-Overcome/dp/1544534655

Transcript

Ashish Kothari: Hi, Jen. It is so lovely to have you on our podcast. Thank you for taking the time to share the amazing research and the work you are doing in the space of mental health and wellbeing.

Genevieve Bonin: Thank you, Ashish. It's a privilege to be on this podcast today.

Ashish Kothari: So my friend, we go back a long way. I would love for you to share a little bit with our listeners about your own personal story and how you, after such an accomplished career in the forces and consulting, decided to make mental health and wellbeing a big priority area for you.

Genevieve Bonin: Well, Ashish, I learned about the importance of mental health and wellbeing very early in my life as some of my family members were suffering from mental health issues. My mother was a key role model in setting the tone to openly talk about what was happening in our family and how to support them. And this was really early days when we were not talking about these things.

Then I joined the military, and while I only served for seven years, I stayed very close to my classmates. They went on various deployments. Many of them got negatively impacted, and I always felt like while I left the forces, it was my duty to find a way to support them.

This is why I serve on numerous boards, philanthropy boards of organizations such as:

The Royal Ottawa Hospital Institute for Mental Health Research

True Patriot Love Foundation, which helps our serving members, veterans, and their families with physical and mental health rehabilitation.

Invictus Games:

Also, as a people leader with various consulting organizations, and now as managing director and partner with a global consultancy firm, where people are the number one asset, I have witnessed many of my colleagues burning out over time, and when it was too late sometimes.

So, opening up the dialogue to reduce stigma, especially in a high-performing environment is so key. And this is why I've become a champion of mental health and wellbeing. It's my point of view that nobody should suffer in silence.

Ashish Kothari: I love that story, and the important word is silence. I would even say, Jen, from my work, unawareness.

There are so many people who, before they burn out, are not even aware that they are, because we are just taught, especially the kind of talent we attract in the consulting firms we worked at, insecure overachievers, “I can do anything. I've always gone through walls. I have a high tolerance for pain,” and you keep going until you hit the wall.

So awareness and silence. And then we don't like to talk about it because we feel there's something wrong with us. We are happy to say “I have a cough. I'm not feeling well, I have a fever.” But if we’re struggling with any of the classic symptoms that come with stress, anxiety, depression, we hide them.

Genevieve Bonin: I couldn't agree more. Absolutely.

Ashish Kothari: You just did some cutting-edge research. And part of awareness is the amazing work you've just done. It was on Canadian workers, right? The state of mental health, especially you focused on younger adults.

It was quite eye-opening, so I would love for you to share a little bit around the insights that you found as you've studied the state of the world that we are living in right now. And part of the reason I want you to share that is so that people feel not alone. If you're struggling with it, you're not alone.

Genevieve Bonin: Yes, we did conduct a piece of research. We decided to focus on the young population because the hypothesis was that they had been majorly negatively impacted, especially by the pandemic.

And here are some of the key findings: Our research was focused on Canada, although I have many other pieces of research that are global in nature from the firm I work for. But here are the highlights from the Canada research.

So Canada is experiencing a major mental health crisis with material human costs, which, unfortunately, will likely worsen over time if it's not addressed. And the crisis is disproportionately affecting young workers.

So, Gen Z workers, based on our research, are less likely to find purpose in work, they're less engaged, and they likely look forward to not wanting to go to their workplace.

And then the second fact is like 40% of Canadian workers between the ages of 18 and 24, although we did extend to age 28 at the end of our research, feel like they're at the mental health breaking point, nearly two times more than workers of other ages. And the stressors disproportionately impact certain populations, such as the Black community, indigenous people, people with visible minorities. And those are the facts.

Ashish Kothari: You mentioned this is research you did in Canada, but you've done broader research, right? I'm quite close to some of the work that our ex-McKinsey colleagues did. The numbers are the same in the U.S. The numbers are actually much worse in many of the developing countries.

Over this holiday, one of the reasons I stayed back in India was the level of burnout in India was like 59-60%. Not people struggling, but literally numbers for burnout using the Christina Maslach index.

So it's a really big issue, and I'm curious as you dug into it, you obviously described lack of meaning. What were some of the other drivers, Gen, that you were noticing that is behind this much higher impact on this group?

Genevieve Bonin: Well, the average working adult spends nearly 40% of their active lives at work, with the workplace being the number one stressor. It strongly impacts our overall well-being.

Another fact is today, more than 25 percent of Canadians report that work stressors are the primary source of stress, and about 20 percent of new entrants into the workforce report that transitioning into the workforce has had a negative effect on their mental well-being.

At work, unresolved conflict and poor leadership are two of the biggest influencers of poor mental health and well-being. I'll be happy to tell you a little bit more about that, based on your future questions.

Ashish Kothari: I want to actually get into that a bit because there is this notion of conflict. A lot of conflict, work demands, time demands and pressures, but also this notion of leadership and how we show up.

I loved one of the articles you published around generative leadership as one of the key ways in which we can address it. So let's talk a little bit about it. Then I want to go into a couple of other areas with you.

Genevieve Bonin: Awesome.

Ashish Kothari: You described the high number of younger workers who are affected. What I really liked about your research was that you actually quantified the real economic and social costs associated with that. Share a little bit around that.

Genevieve Bonin: There are two angles here. From a social perspective, nearly 1 in 2 Canadians experience mental health illness by the time they are 40, with about an average of 20% of Canadians experiencing mental health problems or illness in a given year.

e human cost is an average of:

From an economic perspective, we were able to quantify that the total cost of mental health and loss in productivity is an average of 220 billion annually in Canada, from things such as absenteeism and loss of productivity, not being able to work, showing up at work but not really being there.

Ashish Kothari: And that's almost 10-12%of the Canadian GDP, a significant number. I really love the quantification. Gen, at Happiness Squad, one of the big things we're doing is we built a model very similar.

My estimate when we ran this survey, and that we've been doing this work with companies, our estimate is that on average, most companies are only getting 30% of the full potential that is in their organizations.

We have all of these groups and we are losing it because they don't find meaning, they're struggling with stress, and all of these different levers because the same losses that exist in physical assets exist for human assets.

I love the fact that when you talk about this work, you're actually tying it to a real cost, and there is an important business case for change, especially given so much of the stressors are work-related. We need the partnership with corporations to make a difference here.

Genevieve Bonin: Yeah, it depends, you could call it presenteeism, which is when you're there, or absenteeism, which is you go to work but you're not there. That's really how we were able to, based on serving thousands of people, quantify that by saying "I'm there, but I'm not really there and I'm not productive because I'm not happy."

Ashish Kothari: It goes back to this whole quiet quitting, a really important term that I hadn't heard of until about a year ago. Now it's all over.

Genevieve Bonin: Yes, when you kind of give up, you just decide you're done. Then you actually just exit without any sort of meaningful conversation before you do so.

Ashish Kothari: So let's dig into some of the key drivers behind this mental health crisis that we're swimming in. You mentioned meaning is a big part of it, work stressors are a big part of it.

Any other drivers that you found, which might be specific to Canada, but also you've done this work for a long time and you've done lots of other research. What are some other drivers that you're finding? Why is this particular population so much more impacted?

Genevieve Bonin: Thank you for the question around key drivers of the mental health crisis. Let me give you a few facts around that. The average working adult spends nearly 40% of their active lives at work, with workplace stressors strongly impacting their overall well-being.

Today, more than 25% of Canadians report that work stressors are their primary source of stress, and about 20% of new entrants into the workforce report that transitioning into the workforce had a negative impact on their mental well-being.

I talked about unresolved conflict and poor leadership being the two biggest influencers of poor mental health and well-being.

If I go back to transitioning into the workforce, that had a negative impact on especially young workers, whom I call the COVID population. They were isolated during some of the most formative years of their lives, they missed out on huge moments that would probably form them in terms of being able to have meaningful social interactions.

They learned a way of working to graduate from college or university, and that became a bit of the norm, doing that not only in a hybrid position but also in a very isolated position. Now you bring them into the workforce and some of them are joining the workforce and not seeing anybody in their company for the first two or even three years.

What you're dealing with is something that's completely dramatically different that therefore requires new ways of understanding what their needs are, how to bring them along, and a different type of leadership at play in order to be able to come back to a healthy workforce environment for these folks.

I think about the years from:

I have a 14-year-old and I feel terrible about putting him in front of an iPad, especially when we took long trips. Those devices just completely engrossed the kids so we could sleep or not have a crying baby who wants to run around everywhere.

But now when I think about the effects of that and what I've learned since on my research around neuroscience, I really wonder how much of an effect that has had on this population in terms of their mental resilience. Their brain structures are different than many others.

Genevieve Bonin: I couldn't agree more. I have a 24-year-old son, a 23-year-old son, a 22-year-old daughter, and a 16-year-old son. What they went through, forget about just the introduction of social media and screens, which happened before the pandemic.

But during the pandemic, there was obviously a dead moment, and then it just actually got completely consumed by that. In a way, let's look at the positive side. They could actually use not only social media but screens and access to information in order to learn.

I saw a lot of my children doing exactly that, just looking at learning resources, filling the board by learning all sorts of different things. The downside was maybe from the social media part. There's really limited social connection. It's all happening through digital media.

There's in those formative years, you want to be acknowledged, you want to be connecting, but the level of connection is so different. I really do think that at some point we'll be studying the long-term negative effect of what it did on those people, and that generation overall.

Ashish Kothari: So I want to go to this notion of if we have to solve this crisis, just looking at the data you shared, looking at what people are struggling with, we have to involve employers and workplaces and fundamentally redesign workplaces and help leaders lead differently.

All leadership styles are not going to work. Are you seeing organizations make well-being a priority? And if not, how are you getting them to move on this?

Genevieve Bonin: Yes, that's the good news for today. So increasingly, we are seeing that mental health and wellbeing is becoming a top priority. It's mainly also with organizations who really understand what could be the impact from a business standpoint, and that's some of the work that I do. This is about being able to get results for your business if you address that.

Organizations that are doing well will do a number of things, and there's, I like to put it in four strategic initiatives. First of all, those organizations and employers need to prioritize mental health and wellbeing. They need to see it as a business imperative, and they need to actually quantify what it means if they invest in this.

It obviously will address not only key challenges but will actually lead to better productivity, better business results. The second thing that they do is they invest in developing generative leaders. And I can talk to you more about the concept of generative leadership, but it's going beyond just having leaders form on what I call their heads.

So they establish strategic priorities and they can quick action plans and lead the teams or hands, which is more of the operational component of what a leader would be required to be doing, but heart. And heart means like to be able to show up as a servant leader, somebody who can be listening, empathetic, and be able to bring the people along in a way that will really sort of take into consideration what's required of the people that they lead.

And when I say lead, I mean, I'm not looking at all executives or vice presidents of the company. Anybody is a people leader. I would say that a mother is a people leader because she's leading her kids or a barrister at Starbucks.

The third one is about really investing in building employee resilience. So it's equipping employees with training resources, processes, to manage some of those workplace stressors and some of the job-related setbacks.

And the fourth one would be just to provide access to structured systems and the tools, counseling, peer network, you name it. Those are the things that would bring some of our top employers and leaders to more of a competitive edge in terms of the environment that they create for the people in their organization and resulting into true business impact.

Ashish Kothari: True business impact. I love those priorities. They're so clear and they're holistic, right? So it's about taking pro. I liked your last one because this is about let's give the support and create awareness for those who need it, who are struggling.

But I especially like your second and third, which were let's proactively focus on building resilience and helping leaders lead in a way that results in less burnout, but instead results in more engagement, results in better outcomes. People working in ways that allow them to collaborate and create much better outcomes.

Genevieve Bonin: Yeah. And when you talk about that, Ashish, sorry for cutting you off, but the engagement, it has to be meaningful and you have to walk the talk. It is not like a task, you know, to engage meaningfully. It is something you really need to mean.

And that's not something that you're going to learn through after the workshop or like an online one and a half hour training session. This is something that organizations need to build a program around such that they turn around the way that leaders think.

Ashish Kothari: Say more around what a program like that could look like.

Genevieve Bonin: Well, first of all, it's a culture transformation. Second of all, as I just said, it is not a static one point in time. I've now been taught to be an empathetic leader or somebody who thinks with their heart. It's a journey.

It does require for organizations to realize who are going to be the champions and who are the ones who are really going to be wanting to learn and get on the journey, versus those who will never get there and promote those who will.

It is about a very long-term effort that engages leaders with their employees over an active period of time so that both parties can be heard and be willing to actually make a change. And those organizations who invest in all of these different things, and again, I say it's programmatic, it's multifold, it's over a long period of time.

Well, you know, the result will be a major culture change. The result will be better mental health and wellbeing. The result will be a much happier workplace for everyone.

And from a business standpoint, well, those who actually kind of get it, those organizations who get it will get to strive, meaning they're going to be in the sunset having much better results than anyone, because at the end of the day, there's nothing that we do that's not without people.

So the ability to attract and retain people and have them super productive in the workplace is basically the business imperative on any organization.

Ashish Kothari: We're so in sync. I love that. You know, we had Alex Edmans on our podcast several episodes ago. He's a London Business School economist and he quantified the impact of really investing in employees. He used the employee satisfaction, top places to work.

For our listeners, you can go back and listen to that episode again, but he mentioned two to three and a half percent incremental shareholder returns versus peers, especially over the longer years.

And I love what you said. This is not a workshop. In the work I'm doing now, Jen, with companies, I say this is not a training, it's a transformation, a culture transformation, and it needs to be run and led by your line leaders, of course, supported by HR and other functions.

But if you don't measure how you're doing, if you don't really support leaders in a journey to shift, we're not going to get there. Otherwise, there are so many companies running wellbeing seminars, thinking that's going to fix it.

Genevieve Bonin: It's interesting, I do a lot of work in defense and security. Fundamentally, defense and security is a top priority for any nation in the world.

You can buy a lot of planes, ships, SATCOM equipment, missiles, and radars, but at the end of the day, if you don't have the workforce behind it to keep us all safe, it doesn't really matter how much you invest.

I would argue that you could actually accomplish more by just making sure that you've got the right workplace. When it comes to safety, I'm referring to the military, but I would say the same for the police force, healthcare, frontline workers, and the list goes on.

The investment in people is crucial. If you get that right, the rest is simple or less hard, so it has to be the number one priority.

Ashish Kothari: It has to be. We touched on this topic a couple of times. This notion of generative leaders. You mentioned head, heart, and hands, and I really loved that image. Would you mind sharing a little more about some of these attributes, particularly about the heart? Because that's such a missing link.

Genevieve Bonin: One of the issues that I see the most now with organizations really struggling with culture change, especially in establishing a safe mental health and wellbeing organization, is psychological safety. This is specifically really important in some sectors or subsectors where this could actually lead to major harm, physical harm, or even death.

With the concept of generative leadership, with the head, you're reimagining and reinventing business to serve all key stakeholders. You're giving them the strategy, the action, the mission, depending on what sector you're in.

With the hands, you're operationally deploying the troops and measuring that and all your workforce. With the heart, what you're doing is you're creating that psychological safety. You are saying it's totally fine to have an open dialogue.

You are saying there will be no stigma and repatriation in terms of if you actually come forward and share something of concern. To give an example, the difference between being a whistleblower or someone who's going to say there's something wrong here and you feel completely open to be talking about this.

Or it could be, when I say something wrong, it’s like just not with respect to the physical safety of people, but even from the mental health perspective. If a pilot is not feeling emotionally ready to get on a flight, then they shouldn't and they should be able to speak up about the fact that they're not in a good place right now.

Generative leaders will embrace the concept of leading with their hearts. That means super active listening without zero stigma and with the total support that's required on the back end of it.

Ashish Kothari: And that is so important because being able to listen deeply, hold space, suspend judgment, and really through actions, time and again, show it's okay.

Genevieve Bonin: It's okay.

Ashish Kothari: I had one of the faculty directors for gynecological oncologists. It's such a big name. There are 270 of them and they are facing a huge burnout issue with large attrition. People are actually dropping out from the program because of the intensity.

We've been talking about this and he reached out to me because the work we're doing around flourishing and happiness really resonated with him. It's such an important issue because these residents are making life and death decisions for their patients.

If you are close to burnout, your faculties are not at your best. This is true for so many critical workers and people in key roles, same in companies, but even bigger with police forces, armed forces, doctors, nurses, teachers. It's time we take action.

Genevieve Bonin: I couldn't agree more. I have the utmost respect for all of those you've just mentioned. And I would add our healthcare workers. As a public sector leader for my organization, I saw what they went through during the pandemic.

This was a spike, but that's what they do every day. The resilience required for them to continue to keep us all safe is absolutely a vocation and should be fully appreciated.

All roles are difficult. I would argue that some sectors are underestimated in terms of the stress they endure. In our study, we looked at desk workers and deskless workers for the young population. The factors of stress were very different, but they were equally significant.

If you're a desk worker during the pandemic, you might be spending 17 hours at your desk. If you are a frontline worker, you faced other equally stressful challenges.

What's important is for leaders to recognize the life-threatening and mental health-threatening incidents that are created as part of their own environment, create something custom around it because they are indeed different, and be committed to eliminating those as much as possible.

I cannot emphasize enough the need to create a psychologically safe environment for everyone to speak up.

Ashish Kothari: Well, Jen, we could go on for a long time. It's something that both of us care deeply about and is so needed. I want to end our conversation with some personal well-being practices that allow you to find balance, to serve on so many different boards, lead the work that you're doing, and take care of your family and yourself.

What are some tips and tricks in your toolbox?

Genevieve Bonin: Some people would say that I've been trained to have a very high level of resilience because I was trained as a military officer.

Reality is, people often assume I'm always fine, but I've felt overwhelmed at times, especially when I was looking after too many people, including my family, community, and work, and I forgot to put my oxygen mask on first.

One thing I did was always seek support. The pandemic was particularly hard for me as an extrovert. Being isolated really negatively impacted me. But now I do a number of different things. I exercise and try to eat well, which is always a work in progress.

Connecting with people is a bit challenging for me, especially outside of work because I'm in the people business. Serving my community has always been front and center. That's the reason why I serve on those boards.

I find that when I give, I get more back. It fills my soul in many different ways. I seek advice; I have a therapist I see very regularly. I try to be better to people around me, especially my family, because I haven't always been.

I try to take moments during the day to be grateful for all the wonderful things in my life. I don't have all the answers, but I'm sharing these with you with humility. Balance is different for everyone, and one's need for balance will be challenged over time. The one constant is that someone's values should drive our actions every day.

Ashish Kothari: Jen, if I had to give you a rating around the nine hardwired for happiness practices that I researched and wrote about in my book, you would tick off almost every practice. You've talked about serving your community, gratitude, taking moments to be grateful. You didn't mention mindfulness, but I'm sure you practice it.

Genevieve Bonin: I do. It's too bad I forgot it because it's so important. Anyone who knows me knows I do not go to bed without listening to music. That's when I meditate and have my mindful moments. Sometimes I do it during the day too, in between meetings.

I get notifications that I've spent too much time and should turn down my headphones once in a while because it's going to impact my hearing, but yes, mindfulness is very important. I do yoga, but listening to music for me is one of my number one ways to just simmer down and get back into my good space.

Ashish Kothari: Well, thank you, my friend. This was such an amazing conversation. I am so grateful for our friendship and all that we get a chance to do together.

Genevieve Bonin: Thank you and continue to do all the awesome work that you're doing. I look forward to our future collaboration on many things. Thank you.

Ashish Kothari: Take care. Bye.

Genevieve Bonin: Bye.

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About the Podcast

The Happiness Squad
Welcome to Happiness Squad.

This is the podcast dedicated to helping you unlock your full potential by mastering the art and science of happiness.

We bring on the best leading experts on these topics to help you unlock your true potential and live with more joy, health, love, and meaning in your life.

Your host is no other than Ashish Kothari who is on a mission to provide you with an unfair advantage to be the masters of your experience and leaders in your industry.

Get ready to be moved, challenged, and enlightened on this podcast. It may change your life.

Thanks for being here and joining the squad!
Learn more: https://happinesssquad.com/

About your hosts

Ashish Kothari

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Ashish Kothari is the founder and CEO of Happiness Squad, a company focused on democratizing happiness and touching a billion+ lives over the next 20 years and helping them live with more joy, health, love, and meaning.

Prior to founding Happiness Squad and writing his best-selling book “Hardwired for happiness”, Ashish spent 25 years in consulting, including the last 17 at McKinsey and Co, a premier management consulting firm, helping thousands of clients and their organizations achieve breakthrough performance by building new mindsets and capabilities.

Ashish is a trained ontological coach and a lifelong student of human thriving.

Anil Ramjiani

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Anil Ramjiani is an experienced senior leader at Nike, Inc., most recently as the Commercial Director managing key athlete partnerships and business with Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappe, and Marcus Rashford.

Anil's passion is grounded in empowering people, unlocking potential, and driving performance. He has worked in consulting and corporate across the US, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia acquiring over 20 years of experience in strategy, brand, and general management at IBM, Adidas, and Nike.

He created the podcast and platform Live. Breathe. Believe., to enable reflection, motivation, and inspiration for his peers. #Knowyoutobeyou!