Business / Fitness & Health

Strategies for businesses to better support employee mental health

Employee mental health illustration woman brain electronics computer phone smartphone

Cultivating a workplace culture that seeks to protect, support, and enhance your staff’s wellbeing, in mind as much as in body is the right thing to do.

Image by chenspec from Pixabay

When you’re trying to run a successful business, it can sometimes feel like just a numbers game. It’s easy to get so lost in a sea of data, an ocean of performance metrics, that you forget there are real people behind those numbers. Behind every data point is a living, breathing, thinking, and feeling human being, with cares and worries all their own.

Being a good leader isn’t just about delivering on the tangibles, driving profit margins, and spurring efficiency. It’s also about cultivating a healthy and productive environment for your team. And that means prioritizing your employees’ wellbeing in body, mind, and spirit alike.

Unfortunately, however, even the most successful employee wellness plans can undervalue or even overlook entirely the importance of workers’ mental health. Indeed, in a recent survey published in Forbes, more than 70% of employees say that they want their employers to champion mental health in the workplace, offering resources to support their workers’ mental and emotional wellbeing.

Why it matters

Promoting your employees’ mental health and happiness, of course, is an immense reward in its own right. But it also makes good business sense. An immense body of research has proven what workers and employers alike already know from experience: psychiatric disorders are a significant cause of lost productivity, absenteeism, and high healthcare expenditures.

A study by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that depression alone accounted for an estimated 27 days of lost productivity per employee per year. With 6% of all workers suffering from depression symptoms every year, that is a profound reduction in productivity.

These metrics do not even include other common psychiatric disorders, such as bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder. Despite the prevalence of mental health disorders in the workplace, however, access to treatment remains scarce for many workers.

At the same time, traditional workplace cultures, with their emphasis on performance, competence, confidence, and productivity, often contribute to the stigmatization of mental health challenges, even inadvertently. Thus, the culture of silence and taboo surrounding mental illness is perpetuated.

This can pose a significant challenge for employers, who are limited by law in regard to the questions they are permitted to ask about their employees’ mental health. At the same time, fears of stigmatization or other repercussions may dissuade your employees from disclosing any mental health challenges they may face, further increasing the difficulty of ensuring your employees have the mental health support they need and deserve.

In a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), for example, only about 57% of employees with depression reported actually receiving treatment for their symptoms. And yet the same study found that implementing robust mental health programs in the workplace could save nearly $70 billion in annual healthcare costs in the US alone.

Recognizing the risk factors

Perhaps the first and most important step in developing an effective employee mental health program is to understand the particular risk factors your team may be vulnerable to.

There’s no question that workers today are under unprecedented stress. With the increasing proliferation of mobile technology, for many employees, the workday never really ends. The pressure to be “always on” can be relentless, making it feel nearly impossible for workers to maintain the work-life balance essential to optimal mental health.

Studies show, for example, that workers in the UK feel that modern technologies have increased their workload by 45% and tightened deadlines by 33%. Supporting your employees’ mental health, then, is likely going to require more than ensuring their access to mental healthcare. It’s also going to require the cultivation of a workplace environment that emphasizes work-life balance, employee self-care, and even flex time and other adaptive, employee-supportive work options.

COVID concerns

As difficult as the modern work environment might be thanks to the advent of today’s digital tech, the COVID-19 outbreak has introduced extraordinary and unexpected psychological challenges into workers’ lives. Months into the pandemic, millions of employees are still working from home. And the pressures of self-isolation are immense, wearing, and wearying.

In a world so changed by the pandemic and the effects of enduring lockdowns, your employees may be experiencing significant depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Protecting your staff’s mental health in such an environment requires special care.

You’ll likely need to make a concerted effort to connect with your employees and ensure they remain connected with one another. Even something as simple as a daily video call and the use of instant messaging programs can help your employees feel less lonely, less disconnected, and less anxious.

These interactions don’t have to be all about work. If you have a small team, arrange to have a pizza sent to each of their homes and host a virtual pizza party. Thoughtful touches like these can boost your team’s mood, build unity, and remind your staff they’re appreciated and they’re not alone.

Challenges for industrial workers

The impact of technology and the pressures of the pandemic on employees’ mental health may seem fairly universal. However, some sectors present particular challenges for workers.

For example, those who work in the industrial sector face specific challenges that workers in other fields may not. Industrial work tends to be highly physical and repetitive. The pressure to make ambitious, even exorbitant, quotas may amplify the workers’ sense of stress and anxiety.

Even though it might seem incompatible with most kinds of industrial work, especially assembly work, it’s imperative both for your employees’ physical and mental health to allow them to take frequent breaks and even to switch tasks throughout the day. The mind as much as the body requires respite from such numbing repetition to keep them creative, engaged, and inspired.

When the mind is focused on new tasks, there is less time, for example, to ruminate on worries and anxieties beyond the task itself. And when your employees have the opportunity to master new skills and conquer new challenges, they’re going to have a heightened sense of purpose, self-efficacy, and achievement — all of which are fundamental to an individual’s sense of wellbeing and happiness.

Prioritizing employee mental health

Prioritizing employees’ mental health may feel like a bridge too far in a business environment already overburdened by volatility and the effects of a global pandemic. Yet cultivating a workplace culture that seeks to protect, support, and enhance your staff’s wellbeing, in mind as much as in body, is not only the practical thing to do, it’s also the right thing to do.

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