We live in an era of shattered stereotypes and new frontiers. Monumental demographic shifts, the evolving women’s movement, heightened cultural sensitivities and, of course, the ubiquity of new technologies have fundamentally altered our culture. More specifically these sweeping changes in a short amount of time have changed the places that we work. Effective organizations understand that we can’t solve today’s problems with yesterday’s tools and concepts. This is perhaps most apparent with how we promote mental health at work.
It’s important to note that mental health and mental illness aren’t the same thing. Mental illness is a real health problem that affects your mind and, by extension, your ability to effectively function or accomplish your day-to-day. As we begin to toss aside our outdated misconceptions (that living with a mental disorder makes you weak, dangerous, etc.) of mental illness, mental health emerges as a viable tool for us to broaden our understanding. We all have mental health - but not all people have to live with a mental disorder or illness.
Like physical health – otherwise “healthy” people often experience high cholesterol or bad shoulders or knees – mental health is on a continuum and people may fall anywhere on that spectrum. Physical health conditions cost businesses roughly $225 billion in productivity loss each year. In contrast, the estimate on the annual productivity loss related to mental health is at a staggering $1 trillion. It’s in the best interests not just of the employees, but the employers as well, to ensure that provisions are in place to promote mental health at work and boost productivity.
Rolling out these initiatives in an effective way can be challenging, particularly for global businesses. Though great strides have been made in combatting the stigma surrounding mental ill-health, the fact remains that some countries and cultures still don’t allow for open and honest dialogue around mental health. Moreover, the rise of technology and telecommunication has created more dispersed workforces which necessitates a stronger line of communication between employer and employee.
Dialogue is the most important part of promoting a healthy workplace. What can you do to promote mental health at work?
1. Listen and encourage active participation
Open dialogue and effective communication involves more than just talking - they involve active listening, being genuine, and having empathy. Employee feedback surveys are a useful way to get a sense of how your workforce feels about a variety of issues, particularly if you're asking about mental health in a general way and not particularly about personal experiences to mental illness. Similarly, you may want to ensure managers are trained to listen first and advise second.
2. Educate managers on emotional intelligence
Your management team is undoubtedly experienced and educated, but do the members on the team view their direct manager as trustworthy, empathetic, or self-aware? Managers are on the front lines and their ability to understand the importance of emotions at work rather than avoid them are crucial. Emotional intelligence is quickly becoming one of the most desirable traits in a manager because it strengthens business and employee performance.
3. Implement an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
Many organizations offer some form of employee assistance. More less than often though do companies provide a global EAP program through a third-party administrator. Offering a program in this way affords a level of anonymity for employees. Third-party EAPs are an effective way to promote mental health at work and ensure that those living and working with mental illness can be directed to helpful sources.
4. Promote work-life balance
Work-life balance is defined as the feeling of being able to manage multiple responsibilities at home or work. The best way to promote work-life balance is to make every attempt to allow employees to avoid conflict between work and non-work roles. Things such as flexible hours and working from home afford this ability, but it’s important to provide boundaries in our always-on culture to avoid increased stress.
5. Provide peer support
Talking about a challenging personal experience is difficult, especially in public. Navigating the personal and public divide in the workplace is tricky for both the employee and employer, but it can be done in a way that respects privacy and promotes well-being. Since the statistics are so startling – one in five U.S. adults will experience a mental health problem and by age 40, 50 percent of the population will have or have had a mental illness – it stands to reason that some of your people leaders have experienced or are experiencing these very challenges. Having someone willing to share their experience in a way that doesn’t negatively impact their own well-being can be powerful. It puts a face on something abstract. Alternatively, investing in peer support can be the most effective way to impact change from the ground up.
Prioritize mental health at work
In short, the conversation about mental health at work is evolving very quickly. The goal is to ensure the best resources are available for your workforce. Empowering them to be their best selves, free from the burdens of stigma and stress, benefits first the employee, then the manager, the team and finally, the organization at large. To get the most out of this rippling effect we must first acknowledge that much of what we think we know about mental illness is incorrect. Amidst an unprecedented amount of external change, we’d all benefit from taking more moments to pause and look inwards. Mental health is the new frontier.
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