The workplace can all too often be a source of intense stress. Frequent deadlines, a non-stop barrage of emails, tricky office politics, long commutes, and the constant demand to “do more with less” can all take their toll. As the pressure mounts, mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and burnout, can take hold.
The economic and social turmoil of the past few years has intensified already high levels of work-related pressure. It’s no wonder 76% of U.S. workers report at least one symptom of a mental health condition, and 84% say their workplace conditions contribute to at least one mental health challenge.
But, while the workplace can be the cause of mental health issues, it can also — to some extent — be the cure. As the U.S. Surgeon General noted recently while releasing a framework for workplace mental health:
“We can build workplaces that are engines of well-being, showing workers that they matter, that their work matters, and that they have the workplace resources and support necessary to flourish.”
How can you transform your workplace into an engine of well-being, supporting your employees as they confront and overcome their mental health challenges (keeping in mind that doing so has several business benefits, including increased productivity, higher engagement, and lower healthcare costs)?
What follows are several proven strategies for promoting mental health in the workplace, grouped into five key areas.
1. Foster a Supportive Company Culture
Mental health comes from within and without. The atmosphere we’re exposed to and the people we’re surrounded by play a significant role in shaping our internal mental states.
Coming to work every day (virtually or in person) and feeling like you’re entering a high-pressure zone where you must bury your true emotions can be highly stressful. Conversely, a supportive environment where you can be yourself, share your challenges, and trust your teammates and leaders sets the backdrop for mental wellness.
Creating a supportive company culture starts by opening the lines of communication, making it clear to employees that your organization cares about their health and well-being, and is there to offer a helping hand and an open ear.
You can build a supportive culture at your company by:
- Integrating mental health with onboarding, introducing new hires to your mental health resources, and encouraging them to reach out when they feel overwhelmed.
- Raising awareness of mental health issues by participating in Mental Health Awareness Month each May. Organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness offer resources you can use. (Although, any time is the right time to discuss mental health in the workplace.)
- Offering an EAP or free counseling services and regularly reminding employees about their mental health benefits and how to use them.
- Modeling a positive approach to mental health from the top down. Managers should feel free to be transparent about their own struggles. Simply saying something like, “I will not be reachable during my vacation,” can go a long way toward showing employees that not only is it ok to unplug, it’s encouraged.
2. Promote Physical Wellness
The link between mental and physical health is indisputable. Nearly one in three people with a chronic physical health condition also have a mental health issue. So, by helping your employees improve their physical fitness, you can help them manage issues like depression and anxiety.
A high-quality health plan is a good start, but supporting employees’ physical health and wellness doesn’t end there. Many companies offer wellness programs that include group wellness challenges, online progress tracking, free coaching, and access to resources covering everything from developing a workout routine to healthy cooking.
Other ways to promote physical wellness in the workplace include:
- Encouraging regular exercise and physical activity during the workday. (Sitting for long, uninterrupted periods is linked with conditions like high blood pressure and obesity.) This could take the form of short periodic stretching breaks, yoga classes during the lunch hour, or anything else that gets employees on their feet and in motion. Some companies have even explored “walking meetings.” (Just be sure not to exclude people with limited mobility.)
- Providing healthy — and tasty — food options in the workplace kitchen or cafeteria.
- Offering ergonomic workstations to promote good posture and prevent physical strain. Don’t overlook your hybrid or remote employees. You might provide them a free home workspace consultation or a stipend for purchasing ergonomic furniture.
3. Reduce Workplace Stressors
According to Gallup’s 2002 State of the Global Workplace, stress among the world’s workers is at an all-time high. Half of the American and Canadian workers polled reported feeling stressed during “a lot of the day.”
While performing at a high level will always require a certain amount of stress (even people who love their jobs feel stressed sometimes), much of what stresses modern employees can be managed. It all starts with leadership becoming aware of the burden their expectations place on employees.
Management can reduce workplace stress by:
- Minimizing workload overload and unrealistic deadlines. It’s important to check in with employees regularly to make sure their workloads are manageable. Often, demands come from different managers, so managers should coordinate to ensure assignments are distributed fairly.
- Teaching time-management skills. Professional time-management coaches may be available to speak to your employees, in person or via webinar. You might also invest in time-management software to help employees use their time wisely and efficiently.
- Fostering a positive, collaborative work environment. Employees should feel free to ask for help when they have more on their plates than they can handle. Group wellness challenges can help build team spirit.
4. Encourage Mindfulness Practices
Mindfulness practices such as meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises have been scientifically proven to reduce stress and increase focus. Mindfulness is a low-cost and easy-to-learn way to improve mental health and unlock creativity, which is why large corporations like Google and Target have invested heavily in mindfulness over the past decade.
There are a number of ways to encourage mindfulness among your employees:
- Bring in mindfulness instructors to lead meditation or yoga sessions before or after work or during breaks. You can also hire qualified professionals to create mindfulness videos or remote sessions for your employees to access on demand.
- Give employees subscriptions to mindfulness apps such as Headspace or Calm.
- Encourage your employees to take short mindfulness breaks throughout the day.
- Set aside space for a meditation room.
5. Support Work-Life Balance
Ask the average worker what would make them less stressed; invariably, the answer would be “more time in the day.” Employees are torn between their work responsibilities, family obligations, and outside interests, and few have enough space to balance everything equally.
Work-life balance is about giving your employees the time and space to focus on things outside of work so that they’re less distracted and stressed when they’re working. Over the past several years, employers have experimented with several novel ways of supporting their employees’ work-life balance, such as:
- Offering flexible working hours and remote or hybrid working options. For example, parents may choose to work from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. so they have time to bring their children to school. Remote or hybrid work arrangements help employees regain the time they lose commuting. (Half of workers say their commute is a source of stress.)
- Provide unlimited paid time off. The idea behind unlimited time off is that employers can trust employees to know when they’re approaching burnout and take the appropriate time off when needed.
- Offer paid mental health days. A mental health crisis can be just as debilitating as an illness. Paid mental health days give employees permission for self-care when they need it. They also show that your company values your employees’ mental health and wants them to prioritize their well-being.
As the tips shared in this article show, the workplace doesn’t have to be all-stress-all-the-time. With a renewed perspective on mental health and just a few resources and tools, you can help your employees find the calm and balance they need to be their best selves at work and throughout their lives.