Studies have been looking into the effect of stress and other psychosocial factors on employees’ well-being for decades. One of the first efforts to recognize the connection between workplace stress and well-being was the Whitehall Studies from 1967 to the mid-1980s. And studies continue to document the link between the two. A lot of the research points to lower job control and social support as the common factors for workplace stress. Employees in lower ranks face a significantly more demanding workload and thus, subsequently higher psychological pressure on the job. But over the last decade, the sudden exponential rise in workplace stress and anxiety indicates every worker-level is impacted, including those in higher ranks.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) indicates the well-being issue is more pervasive today, saying 20.6% of Americans ages 18 or above suffer from mental health issues.
Increased stress is a global issue. In the UK, employees reporting workplace stress doubled from 414,00 in 2008-09 to 828,000 in 2019-20. In Canada, 53% of workers have considered resigning due to growing stress at the workplace. The global average of people feeling stressed at work stands at 42%.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further added to the issue of stress and anxiety at work. In September 2020, McKinsey & Company warned against a potential increase in behavioral health conditions stemming from the pandemic. With the sudden shift to remote work, many employees have experienced more social isolation, compounded with the need to be constantly available. This dichotomy, combined with several other factors—personal health concerns, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, and increased consumption of caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol—has led to a potential crisis for the workplace. In addition to these concerns, prescription drug abuse is another possibility with new prescriptions for stress and anxiety medication accounting for 78% of all prescriptions being filled.
While just a few years ago, mental health issues were not discussed or even understood, often leading to the ostracization of anyone who had challenges. Today, mental health is better understood and less stigmatized with more people speaking up about their health and also receiving more compassion for handling challenges. However, more work still needs to be done. This month is Suicide Awareness Prevention Month, giving us time to reflect on improving mental health in the workplace. Here are some ways individuals and leaders can make our workplaces healthier and happier.
Create a no-stress workplace
According to one study, 99% of the workforce struggles with at least moderate stress. And while most companies acknowledge the importance of mental health, executives are ill-equipped to address the issue, impacting businesses and economies. The WHO says anxiety and stress cost the global economy around $1 trillion in productivity each year.
An organization’s first step toward a no-stress workplace is creating a culture of openness, supporting employees who come forward with mental health issues. Offering group meetings and forums can enable workers to discuss mental health issues freely. HR can publicize an open-door policy to allow employees to discuss more confidential matters. Communications can also be as simple as frequently asking how employees are doing and providing reminders to access enterprise mental-health resources. Top executives, including the CEO, should support the commitment to openness. Establishing this type of culture helps the employee feel safe and demonstrates the employer’s commitment to a psychologically safe workplace.
Next, employers should focus on identifying employee needs and stress factors in the company. Provide opportunities to listen to employees—one-on-one and in group settings. To support small group input, collect anonymous data, giving companies a more comprehensive view of the psychological health of their workforce.
Finally, employers must promote self-care. With the line shrinking between personal space and work, managers should encourage their employees to get enough rest and take breaks regularly. Digital tools can play an increasing role in promoting mental health and self-care. Company-sponsored mental-health breaks—whether in person or virtual, or both—can help employees reduce stress while feeling connected.
Mental health benefits matter
Investing in mental health plans enhances job satisfaction and improves productivity. For every $1 spent caring for people with mental health issues, $4 is returned to the economy.
Mental health benefits can include programs that proactively promote positive mental health. Companies can collaborate with health insurance companies to beef up mental health options tied to existing plans. Employers can also include proactive tracking to discover barriers to accessing services and determine the best reimbursement rates.
Leaders may need to adopt new leadership styles
Leaders need to share in the support system required to ensure a happier and healthier workplace. That includes learning new skills, management styles or even taking on new roles. One critical skill is creating the right environment, behavior and mindset both within and across teams. When leaders do this, they can be catalysts in fostering and fortifying psychological safety. This type of environment leads to team members caring more about each other’s well-being, even further leading to a more psychologically safe workplace.
These skills are more important than ever during the pandemic, where a positive work environment can help smooth transitions, such as the sudden shift to remote working models.
Adopting a consultative leadership approach, as opposed to an autocratic leadership style can directly impact worker psychological health. The consultative approach collaborates more with the team than concentrating all decision-making on the boss, a top-down approach. When leaders consult their teams on issues that impact them, it fosters a culture of inclusion and openness. Collaboration creates a more supportive leadership role that improves mental health. By demonstrating concern for team members, leaders can encourage members to support each other as well.
Individuals, leaders and companies can take advantage of September, national and international Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, to make their workplaces healthier and happier. Companies can create better mental health benefits and programs. Leaders can enhance their management styles to create a more inclusive, safe environment. Individuals can watch over their co-workers, ensuring they are coping well with an increasingly stressful work environment.