Sun, May 26, 2024

Addressing mental health in the workplace

Mental health continues to become a more significant issue in our society. It is clearly having an effect on people of all ages and it is having a profound impact in the workplace. While no age group appears immune to these issues, anecdotally, it seems to me that it is having its greatest impact on young people, particularly those in college and those who are early in their careers.  As the father of two daughters in their early to mid-twenties, this was particularly concerning to me.

About nine months ago, while having dinner with the two of them in Atlanta, I asked them about their mental health. My older daughter, Audie, responded that she felt that both she and her sister were doing fine, and she said that was the case because, “after growing with me as their father, everything now seems pretty easy.” At first, I was not sure if that was a condemnation or commendation of my parenting skills, but I felt better after she indicated that growing up in an environment in which accountability was a requirement, but failure was seen as a time for learning, better prepared her and her sister for the challenges of college and the workplace. That conversation led me to think more about how we need to address the issue of mental health in the workplace.

My belief is that we are still in the very early stages of addressing mental health issues and we need to parallel our approach on how to deal with mental health issues, similarly to how addressing physical health issues has evolved. When it comes to how we deal with physical health issues, our society started out by being very reactionary. That is, we did not address our physical health issues until they became a problem.

When they became a problem, then we went to the doctor or took over-the-counter medication. While eventually effective, sometimes waiting for the issues to surface often leads to more serious and long-lasting physical ailments. Therefore, we began getting better at addressing our physical health by taking more proactive steps. Initially, this meant reducing things that were bad for us (e.g., fast food, alcohol, tobacco) and better monitoring our health through regular checkups and screening.

However, to improve your physical health more proactively, the next step is to rachet up your efforts to reduce your chances of physical issues by eating foods that are good for you, exercising more, and getting plenty of sleep. So, we have addressed our physical health evolutionarily by first being reactionary, then by proactively avoiding bad things and increasing health monitoring, and then finally doing things proactively to strengthen our physical health. I believe we have started traveling that evolutionary route in dealing with mental health in the workplace, but we can work on speeding up that evolution.

Mental health issues have definitely been in the spotlight recently and addressing mental health is certainly heading in the right direction. If we compare where we are in mental health to how physical health has been addressed, my sense is that we are in the early stages of proactivity.  Unfortunately, not much was being done in the domain of mental health until very recently, and fortunately, businesses have been at the forefront of addressing mental health issues.

Mental health, as might be expected, was initially dealt with in a reactionary manner. More mental health resources were provided as mental health became a more prominent issue. Companies were seeing their employees experience higher levels of burnout, stress, depression, and other mental health issues. They responded first by providing additional mental health resources such as counseling, therapy, and more personal time off (PTO). This is akin to the reaction to physical health issues; an important step in the right direction, but not nearly enough.

The good news is businesses have recognized that they need to be more than reactionary to the mental health issues in their organizations and therefore, have begun to be proactive in addressing these issues. Similar to the first steps in being proactive for physical health, the first steps in proactively addressing mental health are more about eliminating the things bad for mental health and doing a better job of monitoring employee mental health. Businesses are doing things like improving their workforce culture, as a bad culture increases the likelihood of mental health issues. In addition, they are providing more flex time and hybrid situations in order to reduce the stresses of maintaining a work-life balance. Finally, more companies are providing additional employee assistance programs to address mental health issues before they manifest themselves.

However, where we have yet to see companies go is they take the final step of building their employees up to reduce the likelihood of mental health issues. As we use a good diet, exercise, and get more sleep to reduce physical health issues, businesses can help their workers to be more resilient mentally. One way of strengthening worker resilience is through better communication.  Uncertainty and change are often the cause of mental health issues, so open lines of communication, particularly at the personal, one-on-one level, will help mitigate such issues.

Similarly, mentoring, coaching, and solid training can make your workers stronger mentally.  They will feel better equipped to deal with their jobs if they are better prepared. Focus on accountability and use failures as opportunities to learn. This again ties back to communication.  If employees know what they are responsible for and feedback is provided so that they can learn from failure, they will be more resilient in tough situations. It is critically important for business leaders to not cede this responsibility to Human Resources (HR).  A true leader will work personally to build the resilience of his or her people.

Mental health has clearly become a critical issue in the workplace. We must be more intentional about dealing with it by not only helping our people who are having issues, but creating an environment that will promote mental health and develop our people to be more resilient. This will help your people individually and your organization collectively.

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