Discussing one’s health at work can be tricky. Being asked about or asking about personal information can be seen as discriminatory. Employers might have second thoughts about awarding a promotion or more responsibility to someone seen as possibly “not up to it”, and co-workers with ulterior motives could spread rumours about their peers’ performance and suitability for advancing up the ladder or keeping their current position. However, having discussions about our mental health at work is important because of the far-reaching effects that any imbalance in it can have on our professional performance.
Prioritising employees’ mental health by having support systems in place, can help an employer retain excellent workers, and mitigate interpersonal and interdepartmental issues. As a result, a firm could see higher profits, have fewer losses, and generally thrive.
What is mental health?
Mental health is relevant to everyone, whether one has been officially diagnosed with a mental health issue or not. We are all susceptible to stress, depression, anxiety, burnout, and other psychological challenges. Our mental health affects our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It influences how we think, feel, and act. How we deal with pressure, relate to others, and make life choices are all determined by our mental well-being.
Mental health issues can be brought on or worsened by a number of factors:
- Traumatic life experiences
- Inherited traits (genetics)
- Environmental stressors (poverty, pollution, culture, etc.)
- Brain injuries
- Drugs and alcohol
The following are signs and symptoms that could indicate a decline in someone’s mental health:
- Feelings of depression or sadness
- An inability to focus
- Feelings of intense fear, worry, or guilt
- Sudden or extreme mood swings
- Withdrawing from friends and loved ones
- Low energy
- Insomnia or difficulty sleeping
- An inability to cope with day-to-day issues
- Abusing alcohol and/or drugs
- Changes in eating habits
- A loss of or increase in libido
- Suicidal thoughts
What is the cost of ignoring mental health?
According to the World Health Organization, mental health conditions have risen by 13% in the last decade (as of 2017) and can affect different areas of life, including work performance. This has a great economic loss as well, amounting to as much as US$ 1 trillion to the global economy caused by depression and anxiety – the most common mental health conditions.
Companies stand to lose thousands of dollars by ignoring the toll that negative mental health takes on their employees. A worker suffering from a diagnosed, or undiagnosed, mental illness or episode of poor mental health cannot bring their best self to the workplace or perform to their usual level. This can lead to all sorts of problems: miscommunication, confusion, a lack of focus, and a negative reputation in the office. Such an employee could be passed over for promotions and other opportunities when all they need is some help and understanding.
Employees suffering from poor mental health are more likely to experience burnout, work themselves ragged, or simply give up on being able to complete tasks that used to be manageable. As a result, their stress radiates outward, and their diminished performance affects their co-workers who have to work harder to pick up the slack.
What does good mental health look like?
An individual with good mental health embodies the following qualities:
- Optimism. They generally feel that things will work out and be OK.
- Resilience. They are able to recover from setbacks and plan how to move forward.
- Emotional regulation. They can acknowledge their feelings, work through them, and let them go without allowing them to overwhelm and control them.
- Purpose. They have a sense of direction, which could be as broad as what they want to do with their life or as simple as what they want to accomplish in a day.
- Flexibility, awareness, and general autonomy. They’re not consistently stressed, agitated, or short-tempered.
Mental health is a spectrum but simply put, a person with good mental health can maintain positive relationships with others, manage a range of emotions and feelings – and be able to express what and how they’re feeling – and accept feedback, learn, and apply new knowledge to their life.
How can companies support workers’ mental health?
Creating a work environment that supports employees’ mental health requires being able to talk about the topic. Worldwide, the stigma of having poor mental health or being diagnosed with a mental illness has had a calamitous effect on people’s lives. By normalising the concept of mental health being important and encouraging open discussions about it in the workplace, companies can have an enormously positive effect on the mental health of their employees.
Most firms provide paid time off only after certain parameters are met, and not all provide sick leave (paid or not), which often requires a doctor’s note. Offering employees paid mental health days signals to them that their company is aware of the many burdens human beings have to shoulder. An employee might not have a stomach virus, but they might feel sick to their stomach with worry, and having to go to work in that condition will only prolong their stress.
Creating systems to support workers’ mental health can be achieved with a proactive human resources department and clear communication about the signs of declining mental health and of ways to promote positive mental health. Empowering employees to prioritize rest and create a work-life balance is an excellent start. Provide advice and tips about how they can take time during the workday to boost their mental health. For example, studies have shown that stretching and walking around to break the monotony of sitting and staring at a screen can be a great stress reliever. And giving employees who have a lot of customer or peer interactions a quiet, secluded space to rest and recharge is crucial to avoid burnout.
Survey your employees to identify where problems or crux points are, and keep your workers involved in the conversation about how to mitigate these issues. With so many people now telecommuting, offering guided meditation sessions or access to online therapy can be a simple place to start.
What are the benefits of supporting mental health at work?
A healthy employee is likely a happy one, and supporting someone’s entire health, rather than just their physical health, will generate productivity, enthusiasm, and trust. Ignoring employees’ emotional and mental well-being could increase rates of turnover, burnout, and dissatisfaction, which could in turn damage the company’s reputation and negatively affect its profits.
To begin, when an employee comes forward with a concern about their mental health, ensuring that they are received with understanding and support is crucial as this builds trust. Employees feel they can approach leadership with their issues, and that they will be acknowledged rather than brushed aside. Apart from this simple action already contributing towards bettering their mental health, this could potentially also boost their productivity and increase employee retention. This goes beyond simply being aware of the importance of mental health and demonstrates a desire to give workers the time and space necessary to improve. Creating a work culture that is open and welcoming of conversations about mental health demands company-wide change and participation. People are not automatons capable of answering emails for a solid eight hours a day while fielding phone calls, customers, meetings, and status reports. Despite the universal belief in technology’s usefulness, it has made the corporate world much more monotonous, isolated, and more demanding: get more done, get it done better, and get it done faster.
As the world deals with a lingering pandemic, workers are taking stock of what is being asked of them and of how high the cost can be. The Great Resignation is ongoing, and people want to be respected, valued, and supported in the workplace as multifaceted human beings.
Supporting employees’ mental health – along with offering medical coverage, paid time off, and other such benefits – will help companies attract talent and retain good workers. The nature of the employee-employer relationship is shifting, and if workers aren’t getting what they need to function at an optimal level, they will look for support and understanding elsewhere.
Rachita Sharma is a technology entrepreneur, financial literacy advocate and gender rights activist. Rachita is the CEO and co-founder of Girl Power Talk.