Well-Being//

Building a Culture to Address Workplace Stress

While we know that 1 in 5 employees will have a mental health condition each year, we also know that 5 in 5 will benefit from a worker-friendly and highly productive workplace culture.

4PM Production/ Shutterstock
4PM Production/ Shutterstock

Today, half of workers say they engage in unhealthy behaviors to cope with workplace stress. Two-thirds report that workplace issues negatively affect their sleep. Two-thirds also feel it is safer to remain silent about workplace stress than to speak openly to their employers about it. 

And when they need a day off to deal with their mental health, more than half say that they are afraid to take it.

These are some of the findings from Mental Health America’s (MHA’s) 2019 Mind the Workplace survey and report.  MHA is the nation’s largest national organization dedicated to mental health, with affiliates throughout the country. Our mission is to promote prevention, early intervention, and integrated services and supports because these lead people with mental health conditions along pathways to recovery and health.

MHA collected nearly 10,000 online survey responses for its 2019 Mind the Workplace report. Among other findings, it showed that high levels of stress led to unhealthy behaviors, undermined relationships with family and friends, and were associated with high absenteeism.

None of this should really come as a surprise.

The World Health Organization has calculated that mental health conditions lead to $1 trillion in lost productivity worldwide. It is a mistake to think that these are dollars lost solely due to serious and persistent mental illnesses. Many are lost to situational depression, anxiety, and stress that are often easily treated if they are taken seriously from the start.

Lately, we’ve come to realize that because so many mental health conditions begin during childhood and children spend most of their productive waking hours in school, schools are appropriate environments in which to promote health and mental health to maximize educational performance and productivity.

But anxiety, stress, and depression don’t miraculously disappear with adulthood. Adults spend most of their productive waking hours at work, so it makes sense to put in a similar effort there to maximize work performance and productivity.

Mentally healthier workplaces matter. More and more employers are recognizing this, reaching out to MHA, and seeking answers to help them manage employee burnout, stress, and more.

It isn’t that they haven’t been worrying about this for a while. Many have Employee Assistance Programs, or EAPs, to help stressed employees, but they tell us that employees are fearful that they will be stigmatized if they use them.

We suggest another approach. 

We tell them to start by being open and honest about what they need from each employee for the employer to succeed. And ask each employee what he or she needs from the employer to get that job done.

They may be trying to do this already. But they might be surprised by the answers they get (or don’t get).

In our 2018 report, 64 percent said they not did trust their supervisors to support them if things were tough and 66 percent said they didn’t trust their coworkers either.

So, in 2019 we dug deeper. Instead of looking at how each employee relates to the “employer,” we looked at how they relate to the people on the same line and directly above and below them on their organizational chart.

That’s because these are the work relationships that matter most to them. And because mental health conditions are by nature isolating, fixing these relationships could go a long way toward improving the overall health of the employee and the workplace.

What we found were some things that are fundamental to good workplace mental health and to the most productive workplaces.

The healthiest workplaces are those that promote a workplace culture in which communication thrives. Goals and objectives are clearly explained and understood as mutual. Supervisors listen to the people they supervise. Teams form and support one another. Communication is safe and open. Everyone feels valued for their contribution to the product or service. 

This culture increases an employee’s motivation, confidence in their work, and pride in their workplace. Ultimately, it improves productivity – a win/win.These are the places where people want to work. The good news is that every employer – small and large – can bring this culture to life. Next month, MHA will begin to recognize those employers that do. Because it’s important for job seekers to know where mentally healthy workplaces exist – and for those employers getting it done to attract candidates that will be happy, healthy and ready to work. Because while we know that 1 in 5 employees will have a mental health condition each year – we also know that 5 in 5 will benefit from a worker-friendly and highly productive workplace culture.

Paul Gionfriddo is a member of Mental Health for US, a nonpartisan educational initiative focused on elevating mental health and addiction in policy conversations. The initiative is powered by a coalition of more than 65 stakeholder groups from around the country dedicated to uniting the American people to make systemic, long-term change with civic engagement tools and resources. For more information, visit www.mentalhealthforus.net

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