The need to prioritize mental health within the workplace: A call to business leaders and organizations

Lene Søvold, Psychologist and Mental Health Advisor, Norway

By Lene Søvold, Psychologist and Mental Health Advisor, Norway

April 23, 2020

Mental health is an aspect of life common to us all, which impacts all areas of our lives. Indeed, good mental health is a necessity for human wellbeing and balanced societal growth. However, one in four people develop a mental health condition during their lifetime and these problems have been increasing in the modern world to such an extent that now we are facing a mental health crisis.

Each year worldwide, 284 million people suffer from anxiety, and 265 million suffer from depression. Yet less than 2% of health budgets are spent on mental health globally. It would appear that world leaders and politicians regard mental health as an issue unworthy of particular focus or action. Indeed, such attitudes prevail in a large percentage of the general public worldwide. This is due to a lack of awareness and understanding as to the intrinsic nature, value and impact that mental health has on all aspects of our lives; and the key it holds to resolving many of the current challenges the world is facing.

The ongoing mental health crisis was a far-reaching global issue long before Covid-19; and the aftermath of the pandemic will only exacerbate this situation. Especially when it comes to the growing mental health problems among healthcare professionals and those living in poverty. Other vulnerable groups include those with pre-existing health conditions and challenges, workers who face shut-downs and uncertainty of employment, and elders increasingly prone to isolation and loneliness. Nevertheless, the issue extends to the general global public.

Symptoms of our society: Over-stimulation and the strive for perfection

In these times of disruption and uncertainty, people around the globe are experiencing increased levels of stress, anxiety, identity-crisis and confusion. Whilst these are symptomatic of the modern society, the stress is further increased by continual bombardment from digital media; with life in hectic city environments posing further challenges to sound mental health.

On a daily basis we are exposed to ubiquitous digital screens and the intimate personal details of others’ likes, dislikes, activities and achievements. Thus, added to the stress of information overload in the brain and body, we tend to compare ourselves continually with numerous different people. In effect, we’re no longer only comparing ourselves to family, friends or colleagues in our immediate network, we include complete strangers on TV or random social media contacts. Moreover, we compare ourselves to the filtered ‘social media’ version of them. This means that a great part of our comparisons, and the externally driven values we try to live up to, is based on distortion and illusion.

Therefore, it is no wonder that the experience of low self-esteem, depression and identity crisis is growing. People literally don’t know their real selves; they feel inadequate in comparison to the narrative of how well others are doing. They fail to comprehend that they are trapped in negative loops of stimulus and reaction; or that this state prevents them from making conscious choices based on their true inner values. Thus, they remain unaware and fail to invest their energy and focus in their real objectives in life. Clearly, the problems we face now in society are reflected in the stigma and ignorance around mental health. In particular when it comes to prioritising it to a degree that matches the importance of physical health. Much can be done within the healthcare and educational system, and within communities, to increase openness around mental health issues; to promote knowledge on prevention measures; and to improve both access to and quality of mental health services and interventions. Examples include e-health solutions, school programs and community programs tailored to specific groups and specific needs; facilitation of a more person-centred and holistic focus on health and wellbeing; and more systematic approaches to increase people’s engagement in their own mental health.

Mental health in the workplace: Investing in employees’ health and wellbeing

Given the extent of the current challenges, solutions to mental health issues should not be limited to the healthcare and educational sector. Corporate organisations and workplaces around the world can, and should, be places where mental health is placed at the forefront of the agenda. Leaders and CEOs should accept their responsibility to help flatten the curve of the rising mental health challenges; while reducing the stigma associated with such conditions.

Much undue stress, and other mental ailments, is triggered by the high demands of the workplace and its focus on achievement, efficiency and delivery. Sadly, competition is all too often rewarded in lieu of collaboration, empathy and support. So, confronted with the demands of others, people place high demands on themselves. Thus, they engage unduly in self-critical thought patterns around their own outputs and value. While partly subconscious, such thinking is highly ingrained in their psyche and triggers insidious internal stress. All too often, such self-pressures are based on the illusion of other people achieving more, being smarter or more effective.

Moreover, people have a tendency to define their personal value by what they do and achieve. Thus, they work long hours in a constant rush to achieve deadlines, while struggling with their own negative thinking as they strive to balance work life and personal life. Small wonder that many people long for a more meaningful work life; but remain confused about their true passion and purpose; or feel the expectations of others hold them back from following it.

So how can business leaders and CEOs help to show the way in the resolution of the prevailing mental health challenges?

In reality, healthy employees are more motivated, engaged and productive. Therefore, essentially, their wellbeing determines the health of the corporate body. Without doubt, it is in the highest interests of companies and their managements to address mental health challenges and the associated stigma. This can be achieved by normalising mental health issues and acknowledging the potential that overcoming such challenges holds for personal and professional growth.

Strategic operational planning should be introduced to protect both the mental and physical health and wellbeing of employees; while prioritisng personal and professional development. This can be achieved with access to health interventions and education, alongside mentoring and support. For example, access to workshops, e-health programmes or individual sessions with a health professional. Employees should be able to access learning about recognition, reduction and elimination of both internal and external stress-triggers. They should be able to discern the negative effects of stressors such as a heavy workload, unclear responsibilities, negative thought patterns and environmental distractions.

To alleviate stress and other mental issues, staff should be taught how to practise healthy and proactive routines during their workday. For example, forward planning  to simplify their workday and to leave room for flexibility and spontaneity; use of critical path analysis to reduce end goals into sub goals and tangible steps; decluttering and minimising stressful distractions by reducing exposure to, and engagement with, social media; ways to stay in the present moment; disengagement from negative thinking such as worry, rumination and self-criticism; awareness of how they react to and interact with other people; how to become more self-assertive when it comes to responding to time demands, setting boundaries, and so on.

In addition, during the workday there must be sufficient time to take breaks, for social contact and to practice self-care – for example, listening to uplifting music; access to fruit or healthy snacks; a silent space to meditate or to call a family member; going outside for fresh air, to walk or to exercise. This will help create more meaningful workdays and better balance between work and personal life. Such proactive measures can increase resilience to tension, stress, anxiety, worry and other issues detrimental to mental health. Employees who can maintain a healthy balance and boundary between work and personal life by alleviating the accumulation of stress and other mental health issues, will become more resilient and also better equipped to offer support to others. In addition, they are also likely to feel more valuable and appreciated, and experience increased job satisfaction and productivity.

Principled and compassionate leadership at the heart of the matter

Principled and compassionate leadership is more needed than ever in these times of disruption, uncertainty, worry and confusion. Managements should strive to show the way by practising responsible, principled leadership. They should be mindful with respect to the values they lead by and promote within the organization; alongside the possible impact of these values on their employees and on the organization as a whole. Ideally, developing a set of common values as a work-ethic should involve the whole organization.

Guiding values should include openness, inclusiveness, empathy, trust and transparency. Furthermore, the objective should be to create a mentally sound work environment for all employees. Dialogues about mental health, and ways to improve it, should be welcomed and encouraged. Needless to say, managements are no more immune to mental health issues than anybody else. So, in accordance with the concept of principled leadership, they should lead the way by learning how to protect their own health and wellbeing as a process of ongoing discovery.

In addition, organizations should aim towards a less hierarchical style; using openness, equality, inclusion and transparency as the norm. Managements should include employees in decision-making processes; both at a general level, and when it comes to specific individual and collective roles and tasks. Roles and responsibilities must be made clear; with communication as simple and transparent as possible. While job performance should allow for freedom of choice and flexibility, whenever possible.

Rather than rewarding competition and judgement by making people rush towards an imagined finish line, a collaborative attitude and practice should be encouraged. Each individual must be recognised for their contributions, based on their unique abilities and capacities. A diversity of perspectives should be welcomed; with employees encouraged to use their creative skills; unafraid to express their opinions, ideas or solutions within their area of competence.

In conclusion, such measures will enable business leaders and employees to combat mental health challenges through collaboration. The ripple effects of so doing will extend far beyond the borders of the organization. The health and wellbeing of staff demands investment to develop a culture of openness, collaboration, trust, empathy and compassion. This will bring untold benefits as individuals bond and organizational resilience builds. An evolving sense of meaningfulness, motivation and togetherness among employees will boost enthusiasm, job satisfaction and productivity.

By protecting the health, wellbeing and integrity of each employee, corporate bodies will become more able to serve a healthier, coherent and sustainable world for all.