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How to Promote Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Workplace (World Mental Health Day)

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October 10 is World Mental Health Awareness Day, a day set aside each year to spread awareness and understanding of mental health issues.

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Mental well-being in the workplace matters because we spend a large part of our waking lives at work. (Image source: Envato Elements)

October 10th also a day to mobilize support and to focus attention on the positive work stakeholders are doing for mental health.

In 2021, the theme for World Mental Health Awareness Day is

“Mental health care for all: let's make it a reality.”

It underscores the need to provide quality mental health services to everyone who needs them.

Since the pandemic began in 2020, mental health issues have increased. At the same time, access to mental health services and programs has been hampered by:

  • lockdowns
  • travel restrictions
  • social distancing rules

This makes the 2021 celebration of World Mental Health Awareness Day more important than ever.

Businesses and organizations play an essential role in making workplaces more inclusive for those with mental health disabilities. After all, full-time workers typically spend half of their waking lives at work. Too much pressure at work can easily escalate into mental health pressures.

Mental Well-being in the Workplace: How It Impacts Your Company

Mental health issues run the gamut, from anxiety and depression to eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder. They can affect a person’s perceptions, thoughts, moods, and behaviors.

Some mental health issues are mild and not noticeable. Some may be invisible. Others are extreme and can disrupt a person’s daily life and relationships. It’s easy to see how an employee’s mental well-being can affect their performance on the job.

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Mental stress at work affects employee health and productivity. (Image source: Envato Elements)

But because of the stigma surrounding mental health, employees don’t always get help. They may fear getting ostracized by their peers, or other negative repercussions on their job. And so, they may hide their symptoms or completely deny that they’re experiencing any problems. 

When mental illness isn't addressed, it's got costs for both the person and their workplace. Work stress, including mental stress, increases absenteeism, reduces productivity, and drives up indemnities and healthcare costs.

A 2008 study concluded that mental illness cost an estimated $51 billion in Canada in 2003. This is why safeguarding the mental well-being of employees is of paramount importance for any employer.

Steps to Improve Mental Wellbeing in the Workplace

Here are some practical ways employers can address mental health issues in the workplace. These will make it more inclusive for those with mental health disabilities.

1. Raise Awareness

Remind your managers and employees that just because someone looks well it doesn't mean they are. The list of common mental illnesses is long, and they aren't always visible. Provide training about mental health issues so that managers and employees are familiar with them. Sensitivity training may be necessary to remove the stigma of mental illness.

2. Provide Adequate Health Insurance

Your employees have both body and mind, and your company’s health insurance should take both into account. Some policies don't cover mental illness. Make sure that yours does.

Providing better mental health benefits has been shown to have a high ROI for employers. For more details, review this article:

3. Discourage Ableist Language

Albeist language refers to language that's offensive to people with disabilities. Put policies and practices in place to remove ableist language and negative stereotypes from your office.

Teach managers and employers not to use words like:

  • dumb
  • stupid
  • crazy
  • lazy
  • clumsy
  • fat
  • challenged
  • and so on

This is only one of the many ways to make the workplace more inclusive to people with varying abilities. See this Forbes article for more ideas about inclusiveness.

4. Make Sure Workloads Are Reasonable and Achievable

Unrealistic workloads lead to stress, which could make mental health issues worse. Encourage employees to use their breaks and paid vacation time.

Make sure managers lead by example with their own behaviors. They can't promote work-life balance if they themselves never take time off to rest and recharge. And consider adding a paid mental health day as another employee benefit.

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Encourage employees to take frequent breaks to relieve work stress. (Image source: Envato Elements)

5. Give Employees Opportunities to Connect and Engage With Each Other

This is particularly important if you've got team members who are working from home. Working remotely can lead to feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety. Take measures to ease all this by communicating regularly with off-site colleagues.

Regular virtual coffee chats, team time, and non-work-related online chats are just some of the ways they can connect with their peers. You can also send out a regular wellness survey to take the pulse of your staff. 

6. Formalize Flexible Work

Now, more than ever, flexible work is important to optimize effectiveness and satisfaction in the workplace. If your workplace has a flexible work plan in place, revisit it to make sure that it’s still serving the needs of all your staff. If your workplace doesn’t have a flex work policy, consider adding this important benefit.

Flexible work arrangements can come in different forms. Examples include:

  • flexible work hours
  • part-time work
  • hybrid in-office and remote work
  • work from home (or anywhere) full-time
  • compressed work week (four days vs. five)
  • job sharing
  • gradual retirement or tapering down their working hours instead of retiring abruptly

7. Celebrate World Mental Health Awareness Day 2021

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Increase mental health awareness by distributing materials from the World Health Organization, such as this flyer. (Image source: World Health Organization)

Make World Mental Health Awareness Day a regular event at your work. Celebrating this day can galvanize, not the just attention of both management and employees. It can also shore up resources for mental health awareness and management programs. Marking the day doesn’t have to be complicated.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Distribute some of the mental health resources posted by the World Health Organization each year.
  • Invite experts to speak at your work or through video conferencing.
  • Set aside 10 minutes each day for a week for guided meditation.
  • Send staff information on the mental health benefits your company provides.
  • Have a few team members share their personal journeys of overcoming or living with mental health issues.

The possibilities are endless. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) lists other annual mental health awareness events you may wish to take part in.

8. Ask, Don’t Assume

If your staff has told you that they've got mental health issues, don’t assume you know what they need.

“Remember that the best expert on a person’s needs is themselves,” writes the Mental Health Foundation in the United Kingdom.

Ask them how you, personally, and the organization can support them. And of course, remind them of the policies and benefits already in place that they can avail of.

You may also find yourself in the position of starting the conversation if you see a colleague showing work-related stress and anxiety symptoms. Learn how to raise the subject with sensitivity and compassion.

It goes without saying that you must protect their privacy and not disclose what they share with you without their prior consent.

9. End Discrimination in the Workplace

Due to the stigma attached to mental illness, people who've got mental health issues often experience discrimination.

The other side of the coin is that discrimination contributes to mental illness (more on this below). Multiple research studies have consistently shown that the chronic experience of discrimination can cause a person to develop low-esteem. They’re also at a higher risk for stress-related disorders including anxiety and depression. This can manifest as:

  • sadness
  • distress
  • alcohol abuse
  • drug abuse
  • among others

This is just one more reason to make your workplace more diverse and inclusive. Your efforts may range from:

10. Promote Physical Activity

Another area that's been the subject of research is the relationship between mental health and exercise or physical activity.

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It doesn't take much to reduce work stress. A weekly group yoga session in the office can have enormous benefits. (Image source: Envato Elements)

In a study of 1.2 million people in the United States published in The Lancet Psychiatry, exercise was positively linked to better mental health. The study found that participants who exercised had 1.5 fewer days of poor mental health each month than people who didn't exercise.

The biggest improvements in mental health were seen among participants diagnosed with depression. The amount of exercise made a difference as well. Best results were seen in people who exercised for 30-60 minutes, three to five days a week (more isn’t always better!).

It doesn’t take much to promote physical activity in the workplace. Consider these ideas:

  • Host weekly workout sessions. Yoga, tai chi, and dancing can easily be arranged in an office.
  • Provide standing desks to increase staff members’ activity levels. If standing desks are too expensive, consider more affordable alternatives like desktop risers or laptop stands.
  • Encourage employees to take the stairs. It helps to keep stairwells clean, well-lit, and attractive.
  • Provide safe and pleasant walking paths outside the office.
  • Support those who bike to work by offering secure and convenient bicycle storage and shower facilities.

As you can see, promoting emotional wellness at work entails both mind and body.

More Mental Health Resources for Employers and Employees

Experts continue to learn more about mental health as more research is carried out. And as our understanding of mental health issues evolves, employers may have to adjust their policies and practices.

Here are six resources to keep yourself abreast of the latest information:

1. Mental Health America

Founded in 1909, Mental Health America is a community-based nonprofit in the United States. It's dedicated to promoting mental health. Their website provides a ton of information, including research briefs, policy reports, news, tools for mental wellness, and more.

2. Mental Health Works

Headquartered in Ontario, Mental Health Works is a national social enterprise of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). They provide resources and training to the business community, to help them address mental health issues in the workplace. Taking care of your employees’ mental health they say,

“is more than good business. It's the right thing to do.”

3. The Center for Workplace Mental Health

The name says it all. This organization works with employers and other partners to end the stigma, increase awareness, and improve the implementation of mental health programs in the workplace. Their website offers free guides, toolkits, training programs, infographics, and other resources.

4. Workplace Health Promotion

Workplace Health Promotion is a program of the Centers for Disease Control. It provides leadership in science-based workplace health promotion programs to improve the mental health and well-being of employees. Visit the CDC Workplace Health Resource Center to get tools and resources for promoting an environment that promotes mental health.

5. Workplace Resources

Part of the Opening Minds initiative, The Working Mind is a program managed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC). Their Workplace Resources website offers programs, courses, and multimedia resources for employers.

6. Workplace Strategies for Mental Health

This site has information and resources for both employers and employees to prevent, address, and manage mental health issues in the workplace. It's got a special section specially for people leaders. It contains resources to develop leadership skills, team building, and employee-supportive practices.

Also check out these articles on mental health:

Good for the Team, Good for the Organization

Mental health is critical for an engaged, productive, and effective workplace. As an employer or manager, you can take steps to be more accepting, understanding, and supportive of those who've got mental health issues.

Protecting and promoting mental wellbeing in the workplace is not only good for your employees. It’s also good for your business or organization. Your staff members’ mental health has a direct effect on their level of engagement and productivity. This means, not just happier workers, but also a healthier bottom line.

You’ve just seen how mental health is intimately connected with physical health and diversity. This means promoting mental health is inseparable from other efforts to create a good work environment.

Promoting mental health in the workplace is good for all!

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