Workplace Mental Health in Three Steps

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World Mental Health Day (October 10) is a good time to reflect on what organizations can do to promote mental health in their workforce. From failure to thrive to severe disorder, mental health is both affected by and affects the workplace. While there is typically plenty of focus on physical health and injuries at work, often neglected is the more hidden issue of mental health and all of its consequences to employees and organizations. There is a lot that organizations can do to promote mental health, but there can be a reluctance to talk about it because of a mental health stigma (see what one company is doing to combat that). Here I will explain how organizations can promote workplace mental health in three steps.

Mental Health Problems at Work

When we think mental health, we generally think about the negative side including depression, suicide, and substance abuse. But mental health is more than just the absence of disorders. It includes the positive side of being happy and well adjusted to our lives including work. We want to create organizations that not only minimize the impact of disorders, but also help people to thrive.

Organizations have an ethical obligation to assure that they do no harm to their employees. That means implementing policies and practices that manage potential risks to mental health. There is a business case to be made that promoting workplace mental health is a good investment. Mental health is necessary for employees to be fully engaged at work and able to perform well, and it is an important factor in retention.

The Role of the Organization

There are three main ways that organizations contribute to mental health.

  • Stress on the Job. Job stress can be a factor in mental health. Extreme traumatic stress that exists in many jobs such as paramedics and police officers can lead to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Less traumatic stress, however, can make existing disorders, such as depression or substance abuse, worse. Although stress is part of life and cannot be eliminated, it can be managed.
  • Injuries at Work. People who are severely injured at work will experience emotional distress that can include anxiety, depression, and frustration. Life threatening injuries can lead to PTSD in some people. Injuries can indirectly contribute to substance abuse disorders as pain medication prescribed for an injured worker can result in an addiction to opioids.
  • Poor Person-Job Fit. To thrive at work, people must have the talent to perform their jobs well. Hiring people with the wrong skill set or the failure to provide adequate training and developmental experiences can leave employees struggling to perform. This is a stressful situation for most employees that can have mental health consequences.

Workplace Mental Health in Three Steps

There are many things that organizations can do to promote mental health, but it comes down to three main steps.

  1. Primary focus is to remove potentially harmful conditions and situations from the job. This means making the job as physically and psychologically safe as possible. The environment should be managed to reduce unnecessary stress from work. For example, policies could be enacted to reduce abusive and bullying behavior among employees. Management should also do their best to manage physical hazards, focusing on ergonomic design of the environment, safety gear, and safety protocols. Finally, sound human resource systems should be in place that assures employees have the necessary talent to adequately perform their tasks.
  2. Secondary focus is on employee skills in dealing with health and safety risks on the job. This includes stress management training that provides tools, such as mindfulness, for dealing with job stress. It also includes safety training, so employees understand risks and how to avoid them.
  3. Tertiary focus is treatment for individuals who are experiencing mental health challenges. This is generally provided through the company employee assistance program (EAP). Supervisors, however, can also play a role by being available to provide emotional support to employees who just want to talk.

Building a Mentally Healthy Climate

The best way to promote workplace mental health is by building a supportive organizational climate. A mentally healthy climate is one that has policies and practices that make the workplace physically and psychologically safe through all three steps. Employees are encouraged to avoid undue stress (e.g., managing workloads and treating one another with respect) and to work in a safe manner (e.g., follow safety protocols and wearing safety gear). Training is provided to give employees the knowledge and skill to cope with challenges and remain safe. Supervisors are trained to recognize employee struggles and to constructively respond, and professional EAP services are available as needed. This three step approach can go a long way to promoting workplace mental health.

Photo by Ksenia Chernaya from Pexels

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