Research reveals how to create a mentally healthy workplace

As the boundaries between work and life became increasingly blurred over the last two years, people experienced a significant impact on mental health; however, the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace has remained, with researchers from UNSW Business School revealing that prevention is a crucial aspect of addressing mental health in the workplace, starting with organisational culture. Frederik Anseel, Professor of Management and Senior Deputy Dean (Research & Enterprise) at UNSW Business School, said the different cycles of the pandemic and resulting lockdowns have affected workers in several ways, adding that organisations must tackle this as employees attempt to regain work-life balance two years into the global pandemic. However, before organisations can look to implement strategies that aim to boost mental health in the workplace, they must first assess the impact of the pandemic on employees.

Since the start of the pandemic, Anseel has been interested in quantifying the pandemic’s psychological effects and examined some of the implications, issues and insights into how COVID-19 has affected the workplace. In the beginning of the pandemic, those with steady jobs, including many knowledge workers, were mainly concerned with transitioning to working online. That transition went well until the boundaries between work and home life became increasingly blurred, Anseel said. Home-schooling, loss of income, isolation from peers, family and friends, and an uncertain future all impacted the wellbeing of employees and workplaces and led to increased levels of emotional distress.

“Over the months, we saw different sorts of distress and mental health problems… because the boundaries between work-life balance were jeopardised and undermined. And, the distress is, of course, that people start worrying while they’re doing their jobs, but also in the evening and during the night, and there were a lot of sleep problems. And, as people start worrying, people are draining their mental resources,” Anseel said.

Navigating working online and home life during the pandemic significantly drained employees’ resources and ability to function, with many experiencing cognitive fatigue. Anseel said that when people experience mental fatigue, they have trouble concentrating at work and become less productive, creating a cycle, as people notice that they are becoming less productive and start worrying about that as well. “And so people were stuck almost in a cycle of, let’s say, self-talk, worry, more self-talk, observing how difficult everything was, also working from home, sometimes feeling lonely, isolated, not having their normal social support/their network that they could talk to. You have this constant cycle, which reinforced the problems. Some people got out of that, let’s say, on their own, in their own family and getting themselves together. For others, it was very difficult,” Anseel said.

Building an organisational culture that addresses mental health
One in five people reportedly experience mental health issues in any given year; however, this does not mean that some people are more resilient than others — it just means that at that point in their life, perhaps they were more vulnerable than they might have otherwise been due to a variety of different factors, according to Anseel.

To create an organisational culture and workplace where employees can thrive, Anseel urged everyone to consider that mental health is not a disposition; it’s a feeling or state of mind that can fluctuate depending on many things.

“One of these myths around mental health is that you have strong people and weak people. And that is a mistake. Mental health is not something that is an individual trait or disposition, although, of course, you can build strength. But what we see is that it is a variable influenced by time, coincidence, environmental stressors and the support network you have,” Anseel said.

Creating a mentally healthy workplace
A mentally healthy workplace isn’t just one that recognises the importance of mental wellbeing; it can also identify and manage the risk that environment and organisational life can impose on wellbeing, Anseel said. To do this successfully, organisations must consider three fundamental aspects of a mentally healthy workplace — prevention, evaluation and remediation.

Pre-empting mental health problems is critical; the starting point to prevention is creating an organisational culture where there’s attention and recognition of the importance of mental health and wellbeing. “There is this recognition that work design is a very important factor and how jobs are designed in influencing mental health,” Anseel said.

The second important aspect is to monitor, measure and assess where the organisation is positioned in terms of workplace mental health. Although these often look like surveys, it can be a poll survey — anything that can identify where and what the problems are and how mental health is fluctuating, Anseel said. Communication also needs to involve genuine and authentic listening. “But not only poll surveys, because there’s only so much that you can learn from a survey, right? It also means going out there, talking to individuals and listening, and really listening, because there are a lot of companies that say that they’re listening, but then do not act on it,” Anseel said.

The third important aspect addresses how to respond when employees experience mental health problems in the workplace. Anseel said that remediation also means changing the jobs themselves — the structure, the culture and how we lead. Here, organisations are advised to question how they deal with these issues, and be willing to change their approach.

“One aspect is, of course, that you will want to provide all sorts of resources. And that can be, these days, that’s a lot about telehealth. So we will set up apps. We will have training available. We will have coaches, mentors or even therapists available to help people deal with it if there are problems,” Anseel said.

Source: NSCA Foundation

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