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?
So you’re feeling a little overwhelmed. You’ve bitten off a coworker’s head because she forgot to return your stapler. Sleep is a luxury you never seem to have time for, and you feel just a little more fragile with each passing day. You can’t sleep, and even weekends fail to refresh you. As time goes on, you’re even beginning to feel apathetic—like what’s happening at work isn’t all that important, really.
If this sounds anything like you, know that it’s probably time to take a mental health day.
Don’t shake your head: mental health days are not the exclusive domain of people who would rather lounge around in their pyjamas than go into work. Career coach Kathy Caprino explains that reserving a specific day to relax and recharge is essential for anyone feeling too exhausted and out-of-control to function properly. Mental health days can be a healthy choice for everyone, including the hardest-working and most dedicated among us. We’d go so far as to argue that these people are the ones who need mental health days the most. So, even and especially if you think of yourself as a highly-motivated, loyal worker, consider taking some time out to rebalance your life. You’re likely to experience substantial rewards, including higher energy levels, more consistent productivity, and increased stability. The unfortunate coworker who borrowed your stapler will thank you.
Planning Your Day
Be sure to plan your mental health day in advance if at all possible. There may be days when you don’t realize you need the time away until the last minute, but most often, you’ll feel burn-out coming long before it arrives. Failing to plan ahead means you won’t make effective use of your time, and may be further strained by the consequences of taking an unplanned day off. Leaving your coworkers in the lurch and worrying about who is covering for you will not contribute to a relaxing day.
Schedule activities for yourself, and avoid isolation by asking a friend or family member to join in during your day off. Spending time with people who make you happy can only add to the experience.
Pitching it to Your Boss
Unless you’re lucky enough to be your own boss, you’ll have to request time away. In theory, notifying your boss of a mental health day should be easy. No one expects you to hesitate when you’re feeling physically ill and need rest, so why should you torture yourself for needing mental rest?
First, banish any guilt you might be feeling. Looking after your mental health shows that you are a responsible person who thinks ahead and knows how to mitigate health problems before they become detrimental to the workplace. Choosing to set aside a day for your mental well-being signals that you are a practical, self-aware employee. Before requesting time off, ensure that you are confident in your need for it.
Next, assess how you think the interaction is likely to go. What is your manager like? Are they open to discussing mental health challenges? We do realize the world is by no means an oasis of acceptance, and we’re under no illusions that mental health stigma is a thing of the past. Not all bosses will be thrilled at the idea of a mental health day, in which case you should call it a personal day and leave it at that. You are under no obligation to go into extravagant detail.
If you do have a relatively accepting boss, pitch your mental health day as a risk management strategy. A reasonable manager will understand that giving their employees one day to reset is preferable to guiding them through a stress-related and preventable meltdown. Emphasize that taking a carefully-planned day off will be of benefit to you, your coworkers, and the company or organization as a whole. Your manager should appreciate your forethought and consideration.
How to Spend the Day
Tempting as it might be, don’t waste your entire mental health day hanging out with Netflix. This activity might feel soothing at the time, but won’t usually result in lasting benefits. You’ll probably go into work the next day feeling as though you haven’t recharged properly. Instead, devote the time to activities that are enriching and engaging.
Exactly how you spend your mental health day will depend on how you’re feeling. For the overwhelmed among us, relaxation is most helpful, so select activities that will reduce tension. Go for a massage, take a walk in a green space, attend a yoga class, or grab lunch with a trusted friend.
On the other hand, if you’re feeling apathetic and numb, find activities that will energize you. Match them to your existing hobbies. Play some games. Cook an elaborate meal. Go shopping (no need to purchase anything if your budget is strained). Lifting the fog of apathy requires stimulating experiences that will remind you what excitement and passion feel like.
Essentially, the template for a successful mental health day involves avoiding stressors and enjoying activities that bring you joy and comfort. Snuggle your pet, surround yourself with loved ones, and relish being away from everything that’s weighing so heavily on you. Any iteration of this basic method should yield positive results.
Making it Last
Even the best mental health day won’t have lasting effects if you fail to make lifestyle changes. Usually, needing one in the first place stems from ongoing issues at work, meaning you’ll have to address these if you want to make meaningful progress. If you don’t incorporate relaxation techniques into your daily routine and maintain a healthy work-life balance, no amount of mental health breaks or even extended vacations will save you from eventual exhaustion. Accept that your current strategy is not working for you, and be willing to make a few changes. If you do, you’ll find that one mental health day can have real long-term impact.
Everyone experiences varying levels of stress, but many of us don’t understand stress or know how to deal with it effectively. This is made more challenging by the individualized nature of stress and how we cope with it. There is no universal, one-size-fits-all strategy, so we must find our own path to managing stressful situations. Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to begin this journey. Here are just a few.
Stress is constantly devalued. With headlines screaming about how to eliminate and fight stress, a very important point is being overlooked: there’s such a thing as good stress, and it’s very healthy. Positive stress is characterized by its short-term nature and ability to motivate you. Good stress is what helps you keep your energy levels high while writing an exam. It helps you evade dangerous situations, which is the original purpose of our fight-or-flight response. It helps you sharpen your focus and conquer deadlines without collapsing. In short, it helps you tackle even the most difficult tasks without burning out or giving up.
Bad stress, by contrast, is chronic, acute, and harmful to your overall health. Unlike positive stress, it contributes to burnout and even physical ailments like depression, cancer, heart conditions, and the natural process of aging. Once you learn to distinguish between good and bad stress, you can convert chronic, destructive stress to healthy, positive stress.
2. Change your perception
As we’ve covered already, stress does not necessarily deserve its bad reputation. So, it’s important to understand that your reactions to and perception of stress are more powerful than the feeling itself. Luckily, your brain is equipped to adapt over time, so if you practice active alteration of your thought processes, you can begin to view stress as a force to be mastered rather than an enemy to be avoided.
Remember, too, that stress is by no means inevitable. Everyone reacts differently to the same situations, which proves that we are not programmed to respond the way we do to things that frighten and stress us out. There is freedom in working to change your instinctive tendencies. When you do, you’ll begin to notice a reduction in anxiety and better control of your emotions.
Let’s face it: we all know the essential components of good health, but rarely honour them. It’s no secret that regular exercise, restful sleep, and a nutritious diet all contribute to a healthier lifestyle, but these have other benefits, too.
Adopting a healthy lifestyle has been shown to reduce negative stress and enhance the benefits of positive stress. Energy levels rise, motivation increases, and general well-being is within reach. If you do more than the bare minimum when caring for yourself, you’ll spot the difference almost immediately.
Effective planning of your day-to-day life is invaluable, not just for productivity, but also for a more relaxed, manageable life. When you don’t schedule time in an efficient way, you will suffer for it. It’s easy, really. One of the best methods you can use is to schedule leisure or relaxation time for yourself each day. You don’t have to do this for long if your timetable doesn’t permit—just take fifteen minutes or so each day to do something you love. Choose activities that require low energy, and put aside your worries for that short time. Unstructured time doesn’t have to be wasted time.
Of course, you can always employ quicker coping mechanisms throughout the day. Take a moment to do some breathing exercises. Plan your day in advance so you don’t need to worry about deadlines. Balance work-related time with family and social time. No matter how crowded your schedule becomes, it’s imperative that you set aside time for fun and social interaction.
Coping with stress may seem like a long, daunting process, but when you implement concrete, practical solutions, you’ll notice equally concrete results. Stress is not your enemy. Learn to make peace with and master it, and it becomes an advantage, not a setback.