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Interview with Jie Li

Li Jie. Interview. Mindletic blog.

What is a work-life balance? What strategies can help prevent burnout? And how can organizations better support employees who may be experiencing mental health challenges or struggling with work-related stress? Jie Li, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, is in the early stages of his career. He strongly advocates for positive psychology and firmly believes that workplaces can be energizing and promote individual prosperity. Currently, Jie Li focuses on young employees’ mental health and well-being.

What inspired you to focus on researching mental health and well-being in the workplace?

Mental health has always been an interesting topic. Everyone has one and it is a central part of human life, so I guess it also gives me a feeling of some importance to study this topic. Especially now that some people are speaking of the “mental health crisis of young people”. It’s a hot topic and I am curious to find out what’s going on.

How do you define work-life balance, and why do you believe it's important for individuals' overall well-being?

I would approach work-life balance from a resources/demands perspective. It’s about how individuals can juggle and respond to demands from life and work. In good work-life balance, employees also feel positive affect from both domains. A good balance between work and life also empowers each other.

What strategies have you found to be effective in preventing burnout in employees, especially young professionals?

Studies have a plethora of suggestions to help mitigate burnout. Theoretically speaking, doing good things leads to good outcomes, so in that sense, that’s not rocket science. Empathetic leadership, inspiring work tasks, work-related resources, the possibility to craft their work, organizational support and so on.

How can workplaces promote a culture of mental health and well-being among employees, and what are some practical ways to implement this?

For the most part, fostering positive employee well-being also positively spill-over to mental health, so the previously mentioned implications (in question 3) largely apply to this question as well. My colleagues Mikko Nykänen and Telma Rivinoja just released a practical guide to help organizations to support young employees’ mental health (sadly, only in Finnish). Employee efficacy can be strengthened by providing plenty of feedback and identifying individuals’ strengths. Employees’ work-related sense of control can be supported by giving clear roles and responsibilities. Also, early tasks should foster a sense of accomplishment and then be scaled as individuals gain more experience. Lastly, support, support, support. Providing the environment to have a low threshold to seek guidance and help process challenging tasks/failures. I think these are excellent pieces of advice to practically affect employees and help provide a culture of mental health.

What are some common misconceptions about mental health in the workplace, and how can these be addressed?

That employees burn out for individual reasons and not from work (they are weak or sensitive etc). In social psychology, we approach health from an environmental perspective. The work environment is a strong determinant of employee health, so in the best case, workplaces can foster positive mental health.

How can organizations better support employees who may be experiencing mental health challenges or struggling with work-related stress?

Previously mentioned implications apply to this question as well (empathetic leadership and social support). As for stressors, make sure that stressors are challenging and inspiring (and also make sure employees have resources at their disposal). Try to avoid hindrance stressors that can stem from role conflict, red tape or office politics, since employees often have no effective way to deal with these.

In your opinion, how does positive psychology contribute to creating a more sustainable and supportive work environment?

By including positive psychology, we highlight the fact that the lack of illness does not mean the presence of positive health by default. It is important to prevent mental illness symptoms, but at the same time, we need to also make sure to foster positive affect (satisfaction) and psychological functioning (setting goals, contributing to meaningful relationships and fostering meaningful work). Let’s not settle for lack of, for example, burnout but also promote, for example, work engagement to boost organizational commitment.

Can you discuss any findings from your Ph.D. research related to young employees' mental health and well-being in the workplace?

We did release a general research report from our one-year follow-up (2021-2022) from the Finnish population. Sadly, it is only in Finnish. To highlight some of the main points, young employees (23-34 yo) experience more anxiety symptoms and job boredom throughout the year compared to older employees (35-65 yo). While further examining young adults, women had a higher prevalence of serious burnout (10,8%) and anxiety (9%) symptoms compared to young men (burnout: 2,9% and anxiety: 3,5%). We also identified that young employees (compared to older ones) experience less meaningful work, worse job-person fit and more social comparison. These were associated with negative employee well-being.

We also have a published paper from the project on effort-reward profiles and their outcomes: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1020494/full and right now, we are studying cross-lagged effects between job boredom and mental health indicators (work in progress, so I won’t be revealing too much since it is not published yet).

How can employers better accommodate the needs of young professionals in the workplace, especially regarding mental health and work-life balance?

Adding to my previous comments, I think it is important to communicate and be transparent. There are indications of young adults expect a lot from work, so discussing employees’ expectations is important to make employees feel like they are in a fair relationship with the organization. As for work-life balance, work should be flexible to account for life events (ranging from having a sick kid to bigger tragedies).

Looking to the future, what changes or improvements do you hope to see in how organizations approach employee mental health and well-being?

Tough question. For information workers, increased tele-/hybridwork brings its own challenges. Right now, I feel like organizations should enhance their sense of community. I think some people don’t realize when some social interactions would be good for them.

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