FAQ: Building Mentally Healthy Workplaces

October 10th is World Mental Health Day, and this year’s theme is especially relevant to us here at DECSA: mental health in the workplace. With this FAQ, we hope to spark conversations about why so many workplaces are unhealthy, which aspects of professional culture influence this trend, and what can be done to promote a more positive, healthy work environment for us all.

What are the signs of an unhealthy workplace?

If you’re wondering about the effect your workplace has on employee mental health, watch out for any of the following signs:
• Employees eat lunch at their desks, or skip lunch altogether.
• Breaks, even scheduled ones, are ignored in favour of tackling a heavy workload.
• Vacation time is accrued, but no one ever seems to take time off.
• Employees remain unofficially on call outside work hours, attending to work-related emails and phone calls on personal time.
• Employees are unwilling or reluctant to discuss mental health issues, even with managers and HR staff.
These and similar signals point to a workplace populated by disengaged, isolated, and overworked employees who would rather struggle in silence than call out a toxic workplace culture. Eventually, the most apathetic and/or overtaxed of these employees will simply leave, increasing turnover and further burdening remaining staff.

Why do mentally unhealthy workplaces exist at all

Perhaps the simplest explanation for work environments like the one described above is cutthroat culture. The cutthroat workplace model relies on the power of stress, pressure, and fear to motivate employees. In many industries, a hard-line approach is used to weed out less-valuable employees, strengthen resilient ones, and drive success in a forceful manner. According to proponents of this approach, employees who can withstand the unreasonably long hours and staggering workload are the only ones who belong. For some employers, cutthroat culture is an efficient way to identify weak links and eliminate anyone who might stand in the way of success.
This model does work, at least in the short-term, but employers who use this framework may soon discover the latent costs of a negative culture. Health spending soars as employees deal with the fallout from elevated stress levels. Absenteeism rises as employees take more sick days to escape a culture that is becoming too exhausting to handle. Employees who are present, many of whom were engaged and productive earlier on, find themselves becoming disenchanted with their work and increasingly disloyal to their employer. Research has shown that disengaged employees make more mistakes, suffer more accidents, and take more sick days than employees who are surrounded by a healthy, positive workplace culture. Worse still, disengaged employees may affect employees who are still passionate and engaged with their work, creating a destructive ripple effect.
As long as the corporate world continues to discourage work-life balance and reward unhealthy work habits in the name of productivity, mentally unhealthy workplaces will persist. Meanwhile, research indicates that, far more than a lavish workplace replete with perks, employees want a positive, secure, and supportive work environment.

Why are mentally healthy workplaces important?

As illustrated above, mentally healthy workplaces foster productivity and job satisfaction. More than these, mentally healthy workplaces make excellent business sense, because…
• work-life balance is more than a buzzword: employees value balance more than ever, and will seek out employers who explicitly commit to preserving it.
• employees are free to thrive: workers will benefit from higher energy levels, make fewer errors, develop stronger social bonds with coworkers, and be easier to retain.
• businesses will save money: lower health spending should result when workplaces make concerted efforts to encourage healthy lifestyles for their employees.
• the essence of workplace culture will improve: a mentally healthy workplace tends to create fertile soil for diversity, inclusion, and stronger peer support.

How can employers build a healthier workplace?

Target Physical Health

Promoting healthy eating and regular exercise is a simple and effective way to ensure employees will see improvements in their mental health. Exercise and nutritious foods contribute to a more balanced, energetic, and stable employee, and many people find it’s possible to manage or at least mitigate mental health conditions with a better diet and vigorous exercise.
For example, DECSA makes a special effort to remind coworkers to take a full lunch break to encourage employees to set their work aside, mingle with coworkers, and refuel their bodies. Intermittent breaks are also encouraged throughout the day, so that our staff has time to reflect and recharge between tasks.

Be the Change You Wish to See

When attempting to rehabilitate a toxic culture or maintain a healthy one, managers and executive leaders have a particular responsibility to model the behaviour and habits they wish to see in their employees. If top officials are seen taking breaks, speaking openly about mental health issues, and advocating the occasional use of mental health breaks, employees are more likely to follow suit. Managers should take special care to cultivate cohesion in teams and personalized supportiveness among individuals. Employees are much more likely to discuss mental health concerns in a welcoming, nonjudgmental environment.
At DECSA, all coordinators are aware of the value of a judgment-free, inclusive atmosphere that makes employees feel comfortable coming forward about mental health issues in the workplace. DECSA staff have been given the opportunity to obtain mental health first-aid training, a crisis team is always on call to assist staff and clients, and discretionary days are frequently referred to as “mental health days” in a positive tone that carries no stigma or punitive element. It’s not uncommon to hear our CEO, Deborah Rose, reminding staff to take vacation and look after their mental health as well as their physical well-being. In this way, DECSA is suffused with an open, inclusive culture that benefits both staff and clients.

Foster Reflection and Social Bonding

To achieve optimal mental health, people need space for reflective solitude and space for social bonding. Businesses can combine team-building exercises with designated spaces for quiet reflection to ensure that all staff feel comfortable at work. Strong peer support and social cohesion decrease turnover and increase productivity, but staff also need access to a safe, tranquil space where they can think through complex problems without interruption, or simply enjoy a quiet moment away from workplace hustle and bustle.
DECSA has a cultural room (sometimes called the Ceremony Room) that serves multiple purposes: it can act as a safe space for spiritual practices like smudging, and can also function as a retreat for people who merely need a few moments alone. The space is designed to inspire peace, tranquility, and emotional safety—the perfect location for reflection and mental respite.


Now that you know the importance of mentally healthy workplaces, we challenge you to evaluate your workplace. Do you see any signs that could point to negative impacts on mental health? Are there ways you can personally facilitate a healthier work environment? Is there someone in your company or organization who can effect change on a larger scale? Why not find out?

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Posted on October 10, 2017, in Advice & How To's and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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