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  • Writer's pictureChristina

Mental Health Mondays: Why We Need to Talk About What Your Employees Are Feeling

Updated: May 25

Mental Health Mondays is a guest article, written by our former epistolary content creator, Christina. We are super glad she’s back and look forward to her monthly installment focusing on the importance of mental health in the workplace.


If you live in the United States, and much of the Western world, you will know that mental health still carries a lot of stigmas, even though it is a topic that seems to be on everyone’s mentally unwell mind.


In the business world, there is an unwritten rule that you don’t pry into the health of your crew, and typically, this is a good thing. Discrimination, whether intentional or not, is a problem, especially among those who are struggling with mental health disorders. I’m here to tell you that maybe we should start to pry, even if only superficially.


Many I/O psychologists (myself included) tend to get stuck in a backward mindset of “What does this mean for my company’s bottom line?” This, even when done with the best intentions, can have a negative effect on the mental health of your team, paradoxical right? For this month we are not going to focus on what it means for your company. Instead, we will focus on what is most important, the health of your team, and what you can do to support their mental health.


The Rise of Workplace PTSD

The US NIH-National Library of Medicine has several articles that point to the rise of workplace PTSD. Indeed, the Mental Health Index has noted that since the pandemic, there has been a sharp rise in workplace PTSD. It’s an epidemic that no one wants to talk about.


PTSD creates a hellish cycle of trauma, perceived trauma, reaffirmation of the trauma, and furthering depression, anxiety, and isolation. In short, the trauma they experienced makes them hypersensitive to their environment, which can cause them to perceive threats where there are none. This just perpetuates the cycle.


The problem goes beyond just the various flavors of PTSD. Burnout, stress, poor leadership, poor processes, or being overworked can all create an environment where the mental health of your employees is in serious decline, even if you don’t see the effects these things have.


Where to Start

Make it a habit to ask how they are feeling. Communicate that they are in no way obligated to discuss any specifics with you, but that if they are having any issues, you are willing to talk about it.


Interestingly, some studies have shown that even knowing that there is a support structure is enough to boost the mental health of individuals, even when they don’t take advantage of that structure. There are very few people who would trust their boss with the knowledge that they are struggling with major depressive disorder and suicidal ideation, but simply letting them know that you are willing to listen, can ease a non-insignificant portion of their struggle.


A broader approach is offering mental health programs that focus on practices that your employee can do to ease stress, depression, and anxiety. Programs that focus on heart-rate-variability/biofeedback, mindfulness, and meditative focus have all been shown to have a positive effect on an individual’s mental health.


In a recent conversation with a fellow alumni and psychology Ph.D. candidate, we discussed work she had been doing regarding breathing exercises along with positive affirmation repetition (think of it as a mantra of sorts), and the positive effect they have on individuals who are experiencing panic attacks.


The beauty of programs such as these is that they are available to employees in a way that they can utilize them in a time that they feel most comfortable engaging with them, and in a way that keeps their participation somewhat anonymous.


The third thing you can do to encourage mental health in your employees is to offer some form of exercise program. Whether it’s a gym membership, yoga classes, pilates, or (something that is growing more popular in cities such as Seattle and Portland) bike clubs. It’s important to understand accessibility and the concern that some won’t be able to utilize these services, which might require considerations on an individual basis.


Exercise has a remarkable anti-depressant effect, and the beauty of it: it doesn’t take much to work. Some studies have suggested that as little as 15 minutes of exercise a day can elevate one’s mood for up to 24 hours.


And we’re not talking about heavy-duty, push it to the limit exercise. Even the simplest of exercises seem to have this positive effect on mood.


The last thing I will discuss that you can do for your employees is one that is entirely new to me, having been told about it by my alumni friend. Encourage an occasional change of scenery. What does that mean? It might mean doing work in a coffee shop, at a park, or (as suggested by the Cap’n) the penguin exhibit at your local zoo.


From what I understand, in the early 2000s, companies such as Google and Apple would encourage their developers to go outside and touch grass, so to speak. Employees would take their computers out to a plaza on campus, or a grassy area and work. These developers reported higher rates of job satisfaction than those who worked consistently from a desk.


In a study being performed at my alma mater, a test group is being asked to work for one hour at least once a week from a coffee shop. While the study is ongoing, early results suggest that even a short time spent in a new environment lessens feelings of burnout and organizational stress.


What’s in it Me?

There are plenty of articles that will tell you what benefits a mentally healthy workforce will have on your company. These articles tend to structure their argument around what it will do to your bottom line or how it can allow you to get away with abusing your workforce because you are teaching them strategies to just accept it (that’s right overworking and demeaning your employees is abuse, full stop).


I’m here to tell you, however, that it is not about you.


It’s not about your shareholders.


It’s not about your bottom line.


It’s about showing a modicum of loyalty to the people who are making your company money.


It’s about building an organization that actively fights the stigma of mental health and establishing a culture that cares about their employees.


It’s about empathy.


When Do We Start

Now.


Address the problem. Over the following months, I will be posting an article on the first Monday of the month. I call it Mental Health Monday. Start there.


Schedule discussions among leadership and team members once a month (join me and do it on the first Monday of the month). Use this time to talk about things related to mental health, like burnout, workplace PTSD, the benefits of biofeedback, etc. Let your team members know that the organization is looking to improve how they view and treat all members. Give the team an opportunity to control the pace and direction of the meetings. Things that have been hidden behind fear of being ostracized might begin to surface, giving you a full picture of what’s been happening out of sight.


Together, we can build an organization that wishes everyone health, happiness, and prosperity.

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