Integrating Mental Wellbeing in Workplace: No Time to Postpone

Visions are worth fighting for -why spend your life making someone else’s dreams? Tim Burton.

Does going to work feel like this?

For many, surviving in the workplace is increasingly developing into an existential crisis. Today, we spend close to a third of our day on the job. According to the American Time Use Survey results released by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics in June 2022, the average number of hours worked in the US on weekdays stood at 8.1, while the average number of hours worked on weekend days stood at 5.64. 

Naturally, the job environment is intricately entwined with the quality of life. Plus, given the time our jobs consume, it should be a fulfilling experience. Ironically, it is not.

The workplace is rather turning into a source of stress for many workers, raising questions about mental well-being and wellness.

Why is mental wellness at work on the radar?

Research shows that stress at workplace has only increased over the years globally, and more specifically in the US. It is now cited as the major cause of overall stress.

Alarming stats

An article published by The American Institute of Stress reveals data that is rather difficult to digest.

  • Nearly 83% of workers in the US experience work-related stress, with one-fourth citing their job as the number one stressor.
  • About a million Americans miss work each day due to stress.
  • A little over 75% of workers in the US say that stress in the workplace takes a toll on their personal relationships.
  • Depression-induced absenteeism costs businesses in the US almost $51 billion a year, plus about $26 billion in treatment-related expenses.
  • More than 50% of workers do not feel engaged at work owing to stress, resulting in loss of productivity.
  • The major causes of workplace stress are workload, interpersonal issues, challenges associated with juggling work and personal life, and job security-related concerns.

A report by Mental Health America (MHA),2022 Mind the Workplace, cited in GlobeNewswire, also shows that an increasing number of people are finding it difficult to concentrate at their workplace.

What is the cost of stress?

High – very high.

It leads to burnout and absenteeism. Stress also causes major health issues, such as diabetes, or could lead to physiological conditions such as chronic neck or joint pains, etc.

The natural byproduct of this is a loss of productivity; plus, there is a high cost associated with healthcare.

Depression/anxiety costs approximately $1 trillion in terms of loss of productivity to the global economy, according to the WHO. However, for every $1 put into scaled-up treatment for common mental disorders, there is a return of $4 in improved health and productivity.

Are we talking about it?

Not quite.

Going by the data from MHA’s report, just about 40% agreed that their company invested in developing supportive managers, while nearly59% reported that their manager was concerned about their personal well-being. About 47% knew what mental health services they could use when needed, but just about 38% were comfortable using their company’s services for a mental health concern.

Clearly, it’s a long road ahead.

While external factors are not in anyone’s control, the leadership needs to step in where the workplace is concerned. It needs to create a means for active and positive engagement so that stress levels decrease.

What are the steps leadership can take to change the culture?

De-stigmatize – Strike a conversation and keep it going

This is perhaps the best way to remove the stigma – open and honest communication. Leaders and managers across levels and departments need to step in. This includes CEOs, heads of departments, team leads, practice leads, managers, and above across functions and teams. If you set it in order at the top, it will percolate to all levels below. There are several ways to do this:

  • Come out with your message loud and clear that the organization bears zero tolerance for any stigma around mental well-being. Encourage people to speak up. As top leadership, make it a regular habit to send out such messages in your speech or address during town halls, or any occasion you get to speak to your employees directly. The more they hear from you, the more it will instill confidence in them to come out in the open. Repeated messaging from you will assure them of no adverse consequences, such as being labelled overtly emotional, or being passed for promotion or recognition, or being micromanaged, so on and so forth.

While the top leadership may be doing it at certain intervals, every individual at the leading or managing position should make it a habit to build a culture of openness across the organization.

Lead by example. As a leader or manager, using your discretion, you may choose to relate any phase of your life where you struggled with situations and came out of it. Nothing inspires more than a real-life example.

Sensitize reporting managers at different levels to encourage their reports to come up and speak to them if they are facing any stress-related challenges. Have training programs or sessions on mental well-being for the reporting managers to begin with. Train them to look for typical signs of withdrawal that employees exhibit when in stress, such as changes in demeanor, absenteeism, unhealthy changes in work habits, mood swings, etc.

Encourage people to have difficult conversations. Train the managers to help them navigate skillfully through sticky situations. In fact, soft training for such conversations should apply to people across the organization, right from the top to the juniormost level as a way to empower people to open up.

Educate about mental health

To replace toxic work cultures with openness and understanding, you need to educate people. One way to achieve this is via training & company-sponsored courses on mental well-being that could be made a part of the KPIs/KRAs. Some examples include resilience training, stress management training, or sessions/workshops to facilitate open discussions on mental well-being and health.

This helps in sensitizing people and making them aware of the typical signs of stress, to identify in self and others, sound off the right alarm to the right person, accommodate their peers, be empathetic to their reports, and most important, be confident to express their emotions.

Be accessible

Follow an open-door policy, where your people feel comfortable enough to walk up to their reporting manager to talk about their issues.

Strategize a framework to make support effective

You could chalk out a proper framework with HR to raise awareness of about the benefits or tool/resources available through a prompt communication strategy. This could include organizing regular campaigns around mental well-being and keeping internal communication frequent with meaningful content.

Clearly indicate growth and development opportunities in individual career pathing so that the employees know what are the prospects. Addressing grey areas and bringing in transparency is key to alleviating stress.

You could also provide customized benefits & packages to suit individual requirements, include mental health in insurance coverage, and implement an employee assistance program. For this, it is important to have it planned as part of the budget, and ensure you don’t cut corners here when required to trim expenses.

You could have a dedicated team, manned by people across levels and hierarchies, to implement mental health strategies and assess their performance from time to time. Re-visit your strategy on mental wellness to make it relevant, and use the data obtained from the tools & resources employed to draw actionable insights.

You could create a supportive work environment. This would include encouraging employees to have work-life balance through paid time off or leaves as per their needs, or maybe sometimes working fewer hours and following a flexible schedule. You could also normalize the working hours. This will help in reducing the overemphasis on productivity that organizations geared for profit usually tend to do.

Make mental wellness accessible

Having the right framework without accessibility of services is pointless. To ensure help is available at hand and on time, you could:

Employ digitally advanced and sophisticated tools with built-in analytics & resources, such as scalable mental health platforms that can be accessed by the larger organization

Integrate device-friendly tools that are easy to use and offer personalized experience

Have a functional helpline number where help is readily available, or provide onsite mental health assistance

Include regular mental health assessment as part of the work schedule to measure behavioral aspects

Address challenges and ensure continuity

While it is one thing to stress on the mental well-being of employees, walking the talk can pose a real challenge, especially when confronted with tricky situations, such as a sudden spike in requests from a client, or an impending deadline. What must leaders or people on the managing front do to handle such situations?

First, always have a back-up plan ready. Even though you may be facing a resource crunch, having a Plan B wherein you can visualize an unexpected shortage of workforce and how to plug the gap helps. This could include planning how to juggle resources between projects or hiring part-time resources for project-based assignment, etc., to meet an emergency.

Second, facilitate collaboration. The underlying principle is to ensure smooth coordination between departments – operations and support – and team to ensure the stress or burden on employees can be reduced as far as possible. Team-building activities, for instance, are highly effective in bonding, which can come in handy in difficult situations.

Third, ensure managers and above are not overstressing on productivity. One way of doing this is to measure the performance of managers and every person at the reporting level. The moment we measure something and ensure it receives the attention of the management, accountability comes in naturally. You could measure by asking teams to prepare plans and assess progress regularly against the benchmarks set.

Fourth, include activity in the daily routine to build capacity. Designing the office in such a way that it facilitates movement and interaction, or making way for leisure-based physical activities, are highly effective, besides targeted training, to instill a sense of well-being in people.

While it is not possible to erase stress, through timely intervention, consistency in approach, and need-based training, you can go a long way in building resilience and the right attitude in people.

To conclude

The significance of workplace in our lives is increasing. The experience it offers, the interaction with co-workers, the relationship with our reporting managers, the level of access to the support we need, all these determine our well-being. 

When as an organization you address this, you are conveying a powerful message to your employees – the message that you care about them. In today’s environment, feeling valued is perhaps the most critical factor in an employee’s mind. By building a supportive and stress-free culture, you are not just attracting or retaining talent — you are strengthening the personality of your business and gearing it for success and growth.

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