Mental Health & Wellness in the Workplace. What Should Employers Do To Support Their Biggest Assets?
It’s no surprise that we all are feeling the stresses and anxieties of today’s world. According to a study done by Angus Reid in 2020, 50% of Canadians report a worsening of their mental health, and one in ten overall saying it has worsened “a lot”.
Now more than ever, we’re seeing open conversations take place about mental health and well-being in the news, in social media campaigns, and between family and friends. A new social norm is being created to open up about our feelings and struggles, which allows for healing and hopefully leads to more resources to seek help from.
So how does this fit into workplace culture? What role should employers have in their employees' mental health and well-being?
I had a conversation with Rhys Green and Jerry Gratton from Trailblaze Partners, a management consulting company, to discuss the benefits of creating a workplace that encourages a safe space for open dialogue and how to build an effective company culture that takes mental health and well-being into consideration.
How does a business go about ensuring employee’s mental health and well-being is being addressed or taken into consideration? What kind of resources or programs can a workplace implement?
Rhys: There are a lot of options in terms of programs, from health benefits to wellness challenges. However, I think ultimately it comes down to the role of their direct manager to stay in tune with the team members' stress levels and to build a strong trusting relationship that encourages their team to ask for help and speak up if the job pressures are contributing to an unhealthy mental health situation.
I think at minimum employers should have a designated counselor that they can refer employees to, should it become clear they need some support.
Jerry: It’s important to note that caring for our employees’ mental health and supporting or advising them are two very different things. Provide as much support as you can, listening being the most important, and leave the advising to the professionals.
If you notice an employee is acting out of character or is visibly not as happy as usual and it’s affecting their work, how should managers or team leaders approach the situation?
Rhys: There is a fine line between being supportive and prying. I think taking them for a coffee to a quiet place with some privacy and asking how they are is a good first step. The effectiveness will be dictated by how strong a relationship the manager has built previously though.
Jerry: Making a meaningful "check-in" as part of your one-to-one weekly meetings. Simply asking “how are you?” and actually caring and listening to their response. If you notice different behaviour, you can say "I noticed you were quiet...” or “if there is anything you want to talk about, I'm here to listen", to let the person know they have that opportunity to open up if they choose to.
After a year like 2020, do you think there should be an open dialogue with employees about mental health and common feelings of anxiety? Should a business provide resources and a safe space to talk openly?
Rhys: One hundred percent there should. 2020 was a tough year for everyone in one way or another, but every year is a tough year for someone. I think hosting a learning session about stress and workplace mental health is a great way to open up this conversation. It helps to normalise the challenges many of us face.
Jerry: I agree one hundred percent. The best companies make caring about mental health and providing support and resources part of the culture. You could include monthly ‘Wellness Wednesdays’ with different topics, Employee Assistance Program (EAP) availability, lunch and learns, etc. Don’t hold just one event but have repeated, periodic opportunities for your employees.
With a lot of us working from home and missing that human connection, what can be done to build a community online (other than the usual daily work calls)? Are there team and relationship building exercises that can be done online?
Rhys: There are a lot of team building exercises that carry over really well onto a video call and the breakout groups function can work really well in zoom. I like anything that gives people a chance to have some fun. Even a silly ice breaker like Two Truths and a Lie at the beginning of a team meeting can help to improve social bonds.
Jerry: It's really important to give employees permission to have non-work time with colleagues on work time. Employees are generally working longer hours in our WFH environment, and often all the time they spend interacting with colleagues is work-based. But we know that that’s not what work is all about. Some best practices are to encourage employees to book "no shop talk" times with colleagues or to implement virtual water cooler apps like Donut.
In my experience, most workplaces did not have much leniency towards taking time off for mental health. It can become a situation where the workplace keeps asking when you may return and that results in pressure to get back to work as soon as possible, even if you aren’t ready, leading to more anxiety.
Is it important to support your employees through the hard times and have contingency plans in place in case of these situations, to cover their workload? How can you make that employee feel comfortable when returning back to work?
Rhys: I would always lean toward the side of giving a team member the time they need. I think we, as people (not just business people and employees), have a responsibility to support each other through tough times as best we can.
Jerry: Treat mental health the same way as physical health. If an employee has a heart attack and is off work for a month, most employers are understanding and figure it out. Treat mental health (diagnosed and being treated) the same way. Also, in most jurisdictions, organizations have a "duty to accommodate" a return to work that may be phased or with a lighter work load after a leave.
Why should employers be so concerned with the mental health and wellness of their employees? How does it benefit and directly impact their business?
Rhys: I believe it's the right thing to do for a couple of reasons. First and foremost our work situation has a significant impact on the quality of our mental health. As employers we have a responsibility making the parts of this that are within our control healthy and positive. Secondly, investing in high-impact areas to better support employees can boost ROI. Deloitte makes a strong case for the ROI for workplace mental health programs in this report here.
Jerry: Our people are our greatest asset, so it’s not much of a leap to believe that we must care for that asset for the company to be healthy, productive and profitable. Investing in the wellness (mental and physical) of our employees is like investing in the maintenance of company equipment, vehicles or technology. It's funny how some companies have no issue spending on the latter but fail to see the need to spend on the former. –
It is well known that having a happy and healthy culture leads to better employee performance, a good public image for your company, happier customers and higher revenue. Yet, in my experience, I haven’t been a part of many work environments where mental health has been discussed openly with employees. Isn’t it time we make this common place across all industries?
Do you think more can be done in your workplace? What can you do on your own level to create that supportive space for those you work with?
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