Health and Wellness

Employee Mental Health Is More Important Than Ever

December 10, 2020

Employee mental health should be on an employer's radar. Here are some tips for encouraging wellness in the workplace during stressful times.

Image of blocks spelling the words MENTAL HEALTH, and a stem with leaves next to the blocks.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, I’ve logged more miles in my running shoes than did even in my collegiate track career.  No, I’m not trying to reinvent myself as an elite runner, rather, I’m afraid of what I’ll become if I don’t burn off some of this pent-up steam.  Each mile run feels like I’ve shed a portion of my hectic, virtual day.  I try to remind myself that mental health is important, and being mindful our own mental wellness can only benefit us. 

Now, employers have a big task on their hands.  Namely, they are responsible for recognizing how their workers are doing during this time of year.  With year-end responsibilities, cold and flu season, and the added stress of coronavirus upon us, so many people need an outlet for all the stress lately.  Unfortunately, if the problem isn’t dealt with, employers could see all sorts of meltdowns.  So, here is what employers can do to be mindful of employee mental health matters.

What is mental health?

The World Health Organization (WHO) dedicates an entire week each year—October 4th-10th— to raising awareness for mental health.  The organization defines mental health as, “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”  Well, that essentially sums up good mental health.

Image of a silhouette of a person sitting with head cradled in arms on knees, with pieces of the person appearing to fly away.

So, what is poor mental health?  Think about it in terms of the opposite.  First, the individual might not realize his potential or recognize his strengths.  Second, he might find it challenging to overcome daily challenges.  Third, the individual could have a difficult time being productive and therefore successful in his career.  Finally, he won’t be able to collaborate at work or help others in his community if he isn’t caring for himself.

Why should mental health be a priority for employers?

Based on the picture painted above of poor mental health, isn’t it clear why mental health is important?  If not, there are many reasons why employers should make their employees’ mental health a priority.

Using the WHO’s definition of mental health, let’s look at it in the workplace setting.  So, we’ll start by imagining you’ve hired Rob, who was quite qualified on paper.  After getting settled in his role, you began to notice he didn’t seem quite as confident as he was in the interview.  In fact, Rob seemed to have forgotten how to use his skills.  You also noticed that when his day started off on a bad note (late due to traffic, spilled coffee, etc.), he had a difficult time looking past the hiccups and focusing on his job.  His inability to focus kept him from completing tasks, and therefore he got behind in his work.  Since he was always playing catchup, Rob never had time to pitch in and be part of the team when collaborating on special tasks. 

Clearly something is amiss with Rob, but what could it be?  Is it possible Roberto oversold himself in the interview?  Absolutely.  Now, is it likely?  Well, considering hiring managers usually have a pretty good eye for talent, it is not likely Roberto doesn’t have skills.  Since an estimated 26% of the population struggles with mental illness of varying degrees, it’s more likely Rob just needs a little support.  His failure to launch could simply be a result of neglecting to notice current struggles with his mental health. 

Related:  Meditation Rooms: Finding Zen at Work

What are some uncontrollable variables that impact mental health?

Photo of a traffic jam, which can negatively impact employee mental health.

Unfortunately, there are many things in life we can’t control.  Basically, some things are going to happen regardless of how hard we will them not to.  Some uncontrollable variables include:

  • Time of year – This would be year-end or busy season.
  • Weather – Think about allergies, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or Bipolar Disorder.
  • Traffic – Sudden traffic problems, or no efficient way to commute to the office.
  • Finances – Unforeseen financial issues that derail us from our budget.
  • People – When others have an attitude toward us or treat us in a way that makes us feel disrespected.

What are some controllable variables that impact mental health?

On the flipside, there are many things that are actually within our control, where mental health is concerned.  Sometimes people need a little reminder that there are ways to help keep mental health in check.  Here are some questions you can encourage employees to ask themselves about how they take control of their own mental health:

  • Schedule – Do I have good time management?
  • Diet – Do I try to get in enough fruits and vegetables, and drink enough water?
  • Exercise – Do I aim for 30 minutes of vigorous activity per day?
  • Sleep – Do I average 7-8 hours of sleep per night?
  • Wellness – Do I see my physicians annually, and as needed throughout the year?

You’ve probably noticed that the body and mind go hand in hand.  Thus, if people take better care of their bodies, they will see mental health benefits, as well.

What are some tips to encourage good mental health for employees?

Image of a room full of employees on their laptops, with a woman holding up a conversation bubble emoji, and smiling.

So, is it really an employer’s responsibility to worry about employee mental health?  Well, in a word, no.  You are not legally required to make sure your employees’ brains are in order.  However, good employers recognize the link between employee mental health and their business operations.  Happy employees contribute to a better work environment, more productivity, and higher employee retention.

The good news for our hypothetical friend Rob is employers are becoming increasingly more aware of the benefit of focusing on employee mental health.  So, if you want to help employees like Rob stay in the right frame of mind, consider implementing these in your normal routine.

Weekly Check-Ins

Touch base with each employee no less than weekly, and more often, if needed.  Ask your employee how he is doing, and what kinds of things he needs.  Sometimes just asking those questions help people feel relieved, because they know they aren’t carrying the load alone.  Do know, however, that you are not your employee’s therapist.  If you feel an employee needs mental health support that is beyond your ability, consider recommending outside resources.

Related:  Start Your Workplace Cleaning in January

Encourage PTO Time

Each year in the U.S., literally hundreds of millions of PTO hours go unused.  Remind employees that one of the purposes of PTO is to keep mental health in check.

Image of an employee with a cup of coffee, taking a break in front of his laptop to support mental health wellness.

Allow Breaks

Hourly employees are allowed a certain number of breaks each day.  Still, salary employees may need to be encouraged to pause for a moment.  If you notice an employee has been grinding away for an extended period of time, suggest he get up to stretch and take a breather.  Even small breaks can benefit mental health.

Encourage Exercise

As you encourage employees to take breaks, you can also encourage them to stretch and get their blood flowing.  A quick walk around the office or outside the building could be a great way to boost endorphins, and consequently, mental health.

Breathing Exercises

Deep breathing has countless benefits for the body and mind.  This is something employees can easily do at their desk in order to help pump some positivity back into their thoughts.

Mindfulness

It’s important for all of us to practice being present where we are.  Help set a good example for employees by being present at work when you are working.  This also means establishing boundaries so you are present at home, with your family or friends, when you are not at work. 

Awareness

Finally, a big piece of mental health is behavioral awareness.  Encourage employee behavioral awareness by showing them how to notice patterns about how variables affect their behavior.

It’s important for each person to know his/her own triggers.  Also, remember not to fixate on any one thing.  Fixation can be the opposite of helpful, where mental health is concerned.

Make Employee Mental Health a Priority

Colds, flus, and COVID-19 are not the only health issues employers need to consider right now.  In fact, this year is pretty much a pile-on, because we also need to remember employee mental health.  Keeping employees healthy in mind, body, and spirit should be the goal.  So, remember to allow employees to have a little extra time to take care of the stressors in their life.  Also, encourage them to care for their bodies in a way that relieves stress for them.  Sometimes, a few tips and reminders will go a long way.

Image of a woman smiling with her arms crossed, with a table of coworkers sitting behind her.


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