Be there for… Your Employees

Mental wellness in the workplace promotes creativity, productivity, longevity, and employee fulfillment.

Changing the culture at work

As employers, we all strive for a work culture that maximizes productivity and supports employees to do their best work. We also want employees to be satisfied with their work and fulfilled so that they are committed to the quality and forward-momentum of our companies. Studies demonstrate that two goals – 1) a workforce that feels supported and 2) maximum productivity and profit – go hand in hand. According to a 2017 World Health Organization study, depression and anxiety are estimated to cost the global economy a trillion dollars per year in lost productivity. Employers all over the world are starting to attend to the mental health culture of their companies for their employees’ wellbeing, and their bottom line.

As employers, we have choices:

  1. We can maintain a rigid work culture, expecting employees to be at their desks, without exception, during assigned hours. This creates a culture of understanding that people plan their time off only when convenient to the company and that sick time is reserved for only times of extreme personal illness.
  2. Alternatively, we can strive for a supportive workplace. We can hold employees accountable for their work and entrust them to accomplish their hours and assignments while offering a reasonable level of flexibility. When the unexpected happens, we can allow employees to use allotted sick time, paid time off to take care of themselves, both physically and emotionally. When possible, employees are supported to work remotely in order to meet their other needs.

One approach is shown to increase mental wellness in the workplace, promoting loyalty to a company and overall success of the workforce. The other accomplishes the opposite.

“Workplaces that promote mental health and support people with mental disorders are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated economic gains.” – World Health Organization, 2017

How can we promote supportive work environments?

Expand our idea of “mental health”

We all have mental health. For some it is a diagnosed, potentially chronic condition that we live with, and for all it is a part of our daily lives.

Consider an employee who has a child who is ill, an ailing grandparent, a natural disaster impacting their home or community, a recent home invasion, or any extraordinary life circumstance. Are they at their mental best to perform at work?

Does that employee have options to ensure the safety of their family? Do they feel safe asking for time off or remote time so that they can address the pressing needs in their life without the threat of punishment or diminished opportunity? This kind of flexibility may dramatically lighten the mental load of other pressing needs, thereby increasing productivity. A work environment that supports an employee’s ability to address their core needs, even when it occasionally conflicts with work time, is important.

Consider an employee who is having a conflict with a co-worker, client, project, or supervisor. They may feel anxious or stressed which may impede their productivity. Do they have someone they can speak with safely to help them address their concern? Does the culture of the company allow for an employee to express that they are experiencing a roadblock or have made a mistake? Fostering a work culture that treats failure associated with trial and error as a growth opportunity rather than a punishable offense promotes creativity, loyalty, and professional vulnerability.

Define health – and “sick time” — broadly

Many companies offer the benefit of “sick days” separate from paid time off, an important and invaluable benefit. As employers, we can support a broad definition of “sick,” making it clear that mental health is as valid a reason to use that time as physical health and that the health and wellbeing of loved ones and dependents counts, as well. What if “sick time” was instead referred to as “personal health time”?

Model positive language and messaging

Are employees applauded for working weekends or saving vacation time? Are they ever reprimanded for taking time off (during a non-extraordinary time in the office)? Are conversations happening about others’ time off that might inadvertently discourage people from taking down time? I.e. “She was barely even sick can you believe she took the day off?” or “He took the afternoon off to pick up his kids, what’s that about?”

Do casual conversations around the office include language that stigmatizes mental health challenges? I.e. “The boss is acting so bipolar this week.” Or, “He is being OCD about the organization of this event.” Using mental health diagnoses or terms as adjectives are inherently stigmatizing.

Create a comfortable physical environment

We spend most of our weeks in the office so creating a pleasant environment that promotes a general sense of wellbeing can help employees feel more satisfied in their work, more comfortable, and more focused. Environmental factors that can impact employees’ moods, wellbeing, and productivity include open doors (when possible), healthy snacks, ergonomic workspaces, plants, natural light, colors, design/décor, etc.

Proactively promote wellness practices and resources

Access to personal health days, paid time off, mindfulness apps, human resources, on-site wellness resources, trainings, time offered for therapy sessions, and other resources are great benefits and can be very valuable… but only if employees have the time and support to utilize them.

Steps we can take as employers:

  • Promote the benefits we provide. Gym discounts, a Human Resources representative, and team trainings, all count. Let employees know that they are available and that it is expected and encouraged that the team embrace those resources.
  • Make it clear that disrespectful language will not be tolerated in the workplace.
  • Define “sick time” broadly and allow staff to use it for both mental and physical health reasons.
  • Model taking time off for both vacation and personal health.
  • Encourage team-building and open communication between supervisors/supervisees:
    • Support consistent check-ins between managers and employees to maintain clear and ongoing feedback and support.
    • Acknowledge the positive work done by employees, not just the pain points.
    • Build a team culture, lexicon, and mutual understanding using easy-to-access tools such as personality/workstyle quizzes, or other team-building tools.
  • Provide ongoing trainings and/or conversations for employees to understand their own and each other’s work styles, preferred methods of communication, stress levels, mental health, company culture, and more.
  • Whenever possible, engage employees to inform company decisions, directions, goals, and policies. Ask your employees for their ideas and concerns, not just for external organizational growth, but also to improve internal organizational culture.
  • Offer reasonable flexibility in working hours to accommodate employee’s overall well-being. A few ideas:
    • Consider allowing alternative work schedules or the opportunity to make-up brief time lost due to important obligations or appointments. Ex. Allowing an employee to start work at 8:45am instead of 8:30am so that they can drop-off a child at school.
    • Allow employees to take bereavement leave for a loss of anyone they deem as a close relative or the freedom to work remotely, as is reasonable and commensurate with work objectives, while visiting an ailing loved one.
  • Support employees to communicate comfort or discomfort with workload – both when it’s too much or too little — with unique consideration offered to employees who are paid by the hour.

Many of the above recommendations can be done with little or no financial investment, rather a choice to enhance a supportive workplace culture. These practices allow for employees to show up more fully when at work, likely leading to a healthier, more productive, and more loyal workforce.

When the culture of any organization mandates that is more important to protect the reputation of a system and those in power than it is to protect the basic human dignity of the individuals who serve that system or who are served by that system, you can be certain that the shame is systemic, the money is driving ethics, and the accountability is all but dead.

Brené Brown, PhD

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