May is Mental Health Awareness month in the U.S. which reminds us that we should pay attention to the mental health of ourselves and others. As a psychologist, my training made it very clear that mental health was the domain of clinicians and that those of us who were industrial-organizational psychologists should stay in our lane–the workplace. Clearly mental health treatment is the domain of clinical psychologists and other mental health providers. However, it is important to realize that the rest of us, including psychologists who are not clinicians, play a role in the mental health of others in the workplace. The workplace is where the roles of mental health providers connect to the rest of us because workplace mental health is important. That leads to the question, what is workplace mental health and what can people who are not mental health providers do about it?
What Is Workplace Mental Health?
When we talk about workplace mental health, we mean not only the absence of psychological disorders, but in how well a person is adapting to and thriving at work. The job is one of the major domains of life for adults who are participating in the workforce. It is a source, not only of financial resources, but of meaning and well-being in life. People’s sense of who they are can be very much tied up in their occupations and jobs. For these reasons, adjustment to work and the work experience is very much a component of positive mental health.
Workplace mental health refers to the connection between the workplace and mental health. It includes how workplace factors can affect people in a negative way that degrades mental health. It also can reinforce positive mental health that is more than just the absence of disorder. Workplace mental health involves the things organizations can do to make the work environment psychologically healthy for employees that goes way beyond making mental health services available.
The Negative Impact of Work
The workplace can have a significant impact on mental health problems. There are several ways in which this can occur.
- The stress of work can trigger symptoms among those who have psychological disorders. For example, mistreatment by supervisors can contribute to a depressive episode.
- Traumatic events at work can result in post-traumatic stress symptoms and disorder (PTSD). Occupations such as firefighters and paramedics have a high rate of PTSD.
- Stress at work can be a factor in substance abuse as individuals might self-medicate to cope with the job.
- Surgery for workplace injuries can involve pain medication that in some individuals results in substance abuse problems.
In the first three cases, it is the stress of work and exposure to difficult situations that contributes to mental health problems. In the last case, a mental health problem is the byproduct of workplace injury. Here too stress can play an important role as it can make it more likely that an individual experiences injury.
The Positive Impact of Work
Positive mental health is not just the absence of a diagnosed disorder. Positive mental health means a person is functioning well and is well adjusted to the job. An individual with positive mental health will experience most if not all of the following.
- A good fit for their job in terms of having the necessary talent to meet the demands of work.
- Satisfaction with the job.
- Feeling that they are contributing to something meaningful.
- Having good working relationships with colleagues and supervisors.
- Enjoying what they do at work.
- Feeling valued by their organizations and those they serve.
- Feeling that they are treated fairly.
- Confidence that they are able to perform adequately at work.
The Organization’s Role in Workplace Mental Health
It is broadly recognized that organizations are responsible for creating a physically safe environment for employees. This means creating a physical environment that is as free of workplace hazards as possible, and policies that require employees perform their jobs safely. Where potential risks occur, employees are required to wear safety gear and follow safety protocols. What is often unrecognized is the importance of minimizing psychological risks that can harm mental health. Most large companies provide mental health services through employee assistance programs (EAPs), but this is not enough. Preventive actions are needed to not only reduce the need for EAP treatment, but to foster positive mental health as well.
There are two pathways by which organizations can address mental health. The first encourages use of mental health services by reducing the stigma of mental health. This is well illustrated by the efforts made by Vince Hafeli, President of Ajax Paving. In the spirit of Mental Health Awareness Month, his approach is to de-stigmatize mental health by making it a topic of conversation. For example, company-wide meetings that used to focus only on physical safety now include discussion of mental health challenges. This approach of holding sessions about the importance of mental health can help people seek support from colleagues as well as mental health professionals.
The other pathway concerns the management of stress at work. Stress is part of life and it is impossible to eliminate all of it. Rather the goal is to reduce unnecessary stress that involves both how people interact with one another and how work is conducted.
- Leaders should treat all employees fairly and with kindness. A goal for all organizations should be to eliminate abusive supervisor behavior that can have a damaging effect on employees.
- Leaders should be supportive of employees who are struggling with job tasks and with personal issues.
- Workloads should be reasonable so that employees are not working excessive hours.
- Employees should have the necessary talents to perform tasks. Mismatches should be dealt with either through training to give individuals the knowledge and skills needed, or by offloading tasks to others better equipped to do them.
- Work-nonwork balance should be enabled by providing flexibility so people can juggle work and nonwork demands, such as childcare.
- Where possible employees should be give autonomy over how and where they do their jobs and then held accountable for results rather than putting in time.
- Build environments characterized by psychological safety. Employees should feel free to be who they are and to express opinions without being harshly criticized or verbally attacked.
A goal for organization management should be to maximize the positive mental health of their workforce. It is the ethical thing to do as organizations have a moral responsibility to take care of their employees. It is also the strategic thing to do as people enjoying positive mental health are able to be their best selves at work.
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