Every year on October 10th, World Mental Health Day is recognized by employers and employees across the globe. According to the World Health Organization, the objective of this holiday is “raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilizing efforts in support of mental health.”
However, mental health and wellness isn’t just something to think about once a year. It’s important to consider the psychological well-being of those around us and support them all year round – especially in the workplace, which is the #1 source of stress for Americans.
Why is employee mental health important?
Unfortunately, it seems that employee burnout is a growing trend. People are being asked to stay at the office for longer hours without additional compensation or benefit. Technology has only exacerbated the situation, with countless individuals feeling compelled to respond to emails long after they’ve left the workplace and even when on vacation.
This often makes employees feel that they are overworked and undervalued. In turn, as many HR leaders report, this leads to a lot of turnover in the workforce.
All of this added stress definitely has a negative impact beyond turnover. As the National Institute of Mental Health notes, there’s a correlation between workplace stress and poor mental health.
Over time, continued strain on your body from routine stress may contribute to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other illnesses, as well as mental disorders like depression or anxiety.
Depression can negatively impact how a person feels, thinks, and acts, thereby decreasing their ability to function both at their job and at home. If left untreated, anxiety and depression can have a significant impact on an employee’s job performance and overall well-being.
Excess stress impacts company culture and teamwork
Stress places a strain on workplace relationships. If your employees are feeling anxious, they are more likely to be short tempered with their peers (and, at times, their superiors). They might shut down rather than open up or pursue effective communication strategies. Stressed individuals are also more likely to display resentment and become overly sensitive when it comes to criticism or feedback. Sadly, these negative feelings can ripple through departments and even the company at large.
Moreover, stress can impede employee focus. The tension it causes leads to mental exhaustion and difficulty in concentration. It’s harder for anxious people to absorb new information or successfully analyze situations. They’re also easily distracted and thus more apt to make (costly) mistakes.
With the right direction, employers and employees can work together to open the conversation and reduce stigma around mental health, anxiety, and depression, and create a healthy workplace for everyone.
Here are a few other meaningful actions that employers and employees can take to promote mental health and wellness in the workplace:
How Employers Can Promote Workplace Wellness
Give ample paid time off
Unlimited vacation isn’t just a Silicon Valley perk. Many companies of all sizes are adopting an unlimited PTO policy. Though a relatively new concept, data so far has shown that this policy actually reduces costs for employers, for two reasons: 1. The company doesn’t have to pay employees out for unused vacation time, and 2. Employees take responsibility for managing their workloads during out-of-office time, leading to more productivity and ultimately fewer days off. As a manager, you can encourage the proper use of an unlimited PTO policy by making sure people are actually taking vacations – and set an example by taking them yourself – which will result in a happier, healthier team.
Allow personal days, no questions asked
You’ve probably seen the viral tweet about the woman who requested a mental health day and received a thoughtful response from her boss.Perhaps one day, with greater awareness generated by efforts like World Mental Health Day, this example will be the norm – not the exceptional viral sensation. If a staff member asks to stay home and take care of their mental health, say yes. Your employee will most likely return to the workplace the next day refreshed and ready to hit the ground running. On a larger scale, you will set a precedent for the rest of the workplace for reducing the stigma around mental health issues and instead bringing awareness to the time and space people need to care for their emotional wellness.
Host a wellness event at the office
With corporate wellness becoming a focus across industries, there are many options for making mental (and physical) health a more formal part of the workweek. Many companies are opting to plan day-long health fairs to offer free medical screenings and health information to the whole staff. Hosting an employer-sponsored chair massage event at your office is another easy way to promote wellness while easing the stresses and pains that come with sitting at a desk all day. (Physical and mental health are very closely connected.)
Don’t email on weekends
One mental health habit that can take years to learn is to avoid work email during non-business hours. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule during business emergencies, or when a tight deadline has to be met. But as a whole, it’s important for employers to respect personal time off. Studies have shown that emailing/working on your phone before bed leads to worse sleep and more stress – for both you and the recipient. You may think that because it’s on your mind at 11:30pm that it’s good to send one last message. “I’ll relax better after I finish this one thing,” you tell yourself. But now that you’ve gotten the task out of your own head, and into someone else’s, you’re putting the onus on them to stress about it until morning.
Don’t call/text/email an employee on their day off
Now that you’ve established a generous time-off policy and have developed a habit of avoiding email during non-work hours, take it a step further – don’t communicate with your employee during their personal days. Unless the office is on fire and this particular employee holds the monopoly on fire extinguishers, there is someone else who can solve the issue who is currently in the workplace. By unduly communicating with your employee on their day off, it disrupts their work-life balance and can give them anxiety and stress knowing that they can never be “free” from their job.
Ban the keyboard lunch
One approach to workplace wellness that we’ve found effective at Zeel is setting one simple rule: no lunch at your desk. Many employees think that by eating over their keyboards, they are being more productive and shortening the workday. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Eating at your desk can exacerbate any mental health issues you may have, as the cause of your worries may be on the computer screen in front of you as you eat. Studies have shown that taking breaks throughout the day actually leads to boosted productivity, which will lower your stress about all those to-do’s, and make you happier. A side benefit of this rule might be a more close-knit work culture, as your team gathers in the kitchen or at a nearby cafe for a more social lunch break. You will also find fewer crumbs on your keyboard.
Make your meetings mobile
Steve Jobs was famous for hosting walking meetings; he would lead a group around the Apple campus and proceed to walk-and-talk. This wasn’t just a quirk of a visionary leader. Data has proven year over year that the simple act of walking more throughout the day increases blood flow, mental focus, productivity, and creative output. Help your employee’s physical and mental well-being by walking circuits around the office while speaking to them. Another side effect might be that you stop stressing about the exercise you have to get after-hours, because you’re already getting a workout at work.
Create a wellness-friendly environment
Design a work environment that’s conducive to mental health. Natural light, houseplants, and the right music can really transform a room. Consider how much open space your office has – are employees crammed together? Personal space is especially important for introverts and those suffering from claustrophobia and/or work-related anxiety. The open office concept is commonplace now, which shrinks or eliminates employees’ private “zones” in which to accomplish deep work. Be mindful of elbow room in the workplace, and make sure there are enough pods or nooks so your workers have room to breathe.
How Employees Can Manage their Mental Health at Work
Don’t look at work email on weekends
Constant emailing is a hard habit to break. But follow this one life tip and your mood will forever change for the better. Stop answering work emails on the weekends, and if possible, un-sync your professional inbox from your phone until Monday morning. If you absolutely must look at that client message, practice self-restraint – just because you saw it doesn’t mean you have to answer it. This sets a bad precedent that everyone in your company has to be “on” seven days a week, which is a detriment to mental health. Instead, keep that inbox closed until you arrive to the workplace after a nice, relaxing weekend.
Find your finest hour
Some people are morning people, while others are at their prime later in the day. Figure out which hours are your strongest in terms of productivity and creativity, and maximize those windows of time. Follow your body’s circadian rhythm, and make the most of your “peak time” (the 90-120 minute timeframe when you’re at your absolute best). On the flip side, don’t push yourself when you feel that you’re not able to work at your full capacity. Depression has its ups and downs, and its best to alleviate its symptoms by taking it easy with a lighter workload when you start to feel tired and trapped.
Make the most of company benefits and perks
Double-check your company’s benefits and perks to make sure you’re getting the most from everything that’s offered. Do you have PTO days or sick leave that you haven’t used this year? Does your company offer commuter benefits which could save you subway stress? Could you be using an FSA or HSA account to pay for stress-reducing treatments, like, perhaps, massage therapy? Review what’s available to you, and make sure you use it.
Schedule all your doctor visits
As mentioned, physical health and mental health go hand-in-hand. Your overall well-being is important. Preventative healthcare is just as important (if not more so) than taking care of yourself when an illness or injury happens. Take some personal time to schedule your routine doctor visits – a dentist check-up every six months, an annual physical, blood work, etc. We know it can be stressful to fit these appointments into the work week, but you’ll thank yourself later.
Take breaks when you need them
Taking breaks are important for your mental health. If you’re constantly jam-packed with work, it can leave little to no time to yourself. If you have depression, you may feel as if you have no escape if you’re on the clock 24/7. There are a number of ways to enjoy a 15-minute break from work. While not everyone is lucky enough to have an in-office nap pod or massage room, you can still take the time you need to grab a mental break. Go outside. Take a lap around the office. Listen to your favorite relaxing jazz song. Meditate. Even just tracking your breathing for a few minutes can do wonders for mental health. Do whatever you need to do in order to refresh your mind.
The sit-stand desk setup is becoming increasingly popular. Standing may not sound fun, but it can actually give you a boost to your physical and mental well-being. Adjustable standing desks lead to better posture, mental readiness (you’re literally on your toes), and the feeling that you’re more in control of your environment. Hitting a 3 o’clock slump? Raise your desk, put on your headphones, and refocus your energy. If you’re in the market for one of these products, here’s our list of recommended standup desks for every budget.
Stretch it out
Sitting is killing us. The plight of the desk warrior is leading to obesity and higher risk of heart disease. Get your blood flowing and promote flexibility by setting a time every day to stretch – right in the middle of the office. Get some coworkers on board to do it with you, and it could become a fun team stretching hour. Stretching at work has been proven to result in decreased workplace stress, among other benefits.
Change your surroundings
If you’re feeling stressed at work, try changing up your environment. The everyday routine of wake/work/sleep/repeat can get monotonous after a while. Get unstuck from the sea of sameness; move to a different room with your laptop, or head over to a nearby coffee shop to co-work remotely for a few hours. A little bit of time away from your coworkers will actually make you excited to see them when you return to your desk – leading to more positivity all around.
Looking to take the next step in promoting wellness at work? Learn more about Zeel Corporate Wellness.
Zack is a writer, producer and marketer with 10+ years' experience in the advertising, nonprofit and tech startup industries. He is currently the Education Production Team Lead at Foundr Magazine, a web site for entrepreneurship education and was previously Content Manager at Zeel. Learn more about Zack on LinkedIn.