We need to walk the walk on mental health in the workplace

When companies stress and reward productivity, it’s easy to ignore individual needs in an effort to be valued.

(Photo credit: Unsplash).

I am sad, angry, and numb after receiving the news that yet another young man in my community of 25,000 died by suicide. 

I’m feeling deja vu. I see outpourings of empathy, a memorial site, comments from people close with the individual saying they had “no idea they were struggling mentally.” I thought we were getting better at talking about mental health, at breaking the stigma. The global wellness industry is worth $4 trillion,m so how are people still dying?

Are we talking so much that we’re avoiding walking the walk? Are not providing people the opportunity to practice healthy habits?

63% of Americans participate in the labor force, yet the onus of supporting mental health is primarily on the employee. We have an opportunity to rethink an employer’s role regarding mental health prevention. 

How many times have you heard “log off whenever you need,” but know it’s not meant for you? Have you ever been in a mental health workshop and thought, “that would be great, but I’m not sure how to apply this and get my work done?” When our company cultures stress and reward productivity, it’s easy to ignore your individual needs in an effort to be valued. 

I have a goal to get in a 15-minute walk every day before work, and another one at the end of my day. Pretty simple, right? Yet many folks will follow through until more “pressing” things take priority. You have to finish that one email. Your boss slacked you and you don’t want to seem like you’re slacking off (no pun intended). If you finish the last 30 minutes of work, you’ll feel better. 

These everyday occurrences are microcosms of bigger workplace cultural and mental health issues — and they must be examined. 

These pressures occur before understanding the power dynamic between employees and supervisors. What if you constantly see praises for employees that go “above and beyond” after work hours? It would be hard not to feel shame in prioritizing your own well-being above your workload.

This is even more prevalent in creative industries, where one’s workload is determined by client needs, deadlines and the race to be relevant. In a recent study, 75% of marketers and creative professionals said their mental health had gotten worse, and 30.1% said it had gotten "considerably worse." 

We can only properly address this mental health crisis by investing in evaluating our work cultures. A singular program or checklist will not offset the deep structural issues that create, contribute to and escalate mental illness. People are dying. We must act. We must imagine new possibilities. 

It’s time to teach people mental health literacy and provide spaces, incentives and systems that support and celebrate — rather than shame and punish — mental illness.

But how?

Workplaces must go beyond free app subscriptions, mandated health insurance and declaring an “open door policy.” Valuing mental health must be embedded within the company culture, so it’s the norm rather than the exception. Specifically, the design of an individual’s workload needs to address worker safety, health and well-being. In the same study, 62.6% of people said their workload has a major impact on their mental health. We cannot say “log off whenever you need to” and expect folks to complete 80 hours of work. 

We also need to think about how management structures enable — or prevent — employees from being seen. Managers, HR, and other leaders need to understand physical and psychological job demands, and then allow employees to have a role in deciding how to accomplish their work.  

When leaders model positive practices, it flows into the entire company. This doesn’t mean leaders need a PhD in psychology. With investment and a shift in priorities, companies can implement health-enhancing supervision, iteratively reevaluate worker skills and demands and modify them as appropriate.

Although there are still many challenges to overcome, there are just as many potential solutions. For some workplaces, four-day work weeks may address the need for more personal time. Requiring managers to get certified in empathetic leadership could be another path forward. Even a substantial cash bonus system incentivizing people to take at least one hour per week towards therapy could help. 

A healthier future is possible if we want it. We just have to stop talking about it, and actually start making some progress.

June Kissel is a Bloom Housing Associate at Exygy.


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