Nine ways to cultivate a mentally healthy workplace

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Work and mental health awareness are two things that don’t often mix. Many of us even forego our own mental health for the sake of work, pulling off overtime sessions and all‑nighters to slay those deadlines or nab that promotion. To the extremes, too much focus on your job can impact your physical health. Japan even coined the term karoshi, meaning “death by overwork”: a product of a culture of extreme workaholism.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Local and international organizations have been emphasizing the impact workplaces have on employees’ mental health, and conversely, the increased productivity of workers when they are healthy and happy. In fact, the World Health Organization’s theme for last year’s World Mental Health Day (October 10, 2017) was “mental health in the workplace.”

One of the local initiatives for this cause is Human Resources (HR) Mentoring, a five‑Saturday elective program on HR operations, by HR specialists in various fields. They held an elective specifically about mental health in the workplace last February 17 at UP Manila. HR Mentoring’s main aim is to equip HR practitioners with the right mindset to improve their services, and ultimately their companies, from the ground‑up: “This will lead to industrial peace through the promotion of social justice and responsibility. Industrial peace, on the other hand, contributes to nation‑building,” says Sonnie Santos, founder of HR Mentoring.

Come to think of it,HR practitioners have so much to say about shaping a company’s culture: they’re the first people everyone meets upon entry, after all—an initiative to make HR professionals more considerate of mental health is a major game‑changer to most companies.

The talk was given by Andrea B. Martinez, MA Ed, a professor and mental health professional from UP Manila. Here are her nine things you can do for a mentally healthy workplace:

 

1. Acknowledge stressors and mental health problems while on the job.




Whatever job you may have—be it a 9‑to‑5 office job, part‑time job or unemployment—has a direct connection to your well‑being, and the same goes for everyone else. Just because somebody is currently unemployed doesn’t mean that they are having the time of their lives. In fact, they may be racked with pressure and uncertainty. Even freelancers and those who work from home experience invalidation, even if they have to take their work home with them and juggle deadlines.

Martinez cites a study wherein 32% of government employees in 20 agencies in Metro Manila have reported experiencing mental health problems at least once in their lifetime, with the most common diagnoses being specific phobias (15%), alcohol abuse (10%) and depression (6%). Even with these statistics, it doesn’t seem like mental health issues are given quite enough consideration in the workplace: mental health disorders are still not yet included in occupational and compensable diseases under the Employees’ Compensation Program by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE).

Thankfully, we’re close to a National Mental Health Law—but recognition of these issues on the job is long overdue. Acknowledge that mental health is an important factor in job performance and satisfaction. Utilize job orientations, seminars and workshops as opportunities to promote positive attitudes and facts about mental health, but awareness is only the first step. Have a concrete program, policy, and if possible, facility for promoting mental health in your workplace.

 

2. Check yourself.

Mental health begins with yourself. You can’t help others effectively if you yourself are feeling down. Martinez shares that a mentally healthy person is:

a. Reality‑oriented, fairly realistic in appraising and interpreting events, reactions and capabilities,

b. Positive, experiencing many positive emotions and attitudes towards themselves, others, and life in general,

c. In control of oneself, with the confidence to make voluntary decisions rather than making uncontrollable reactions during moments of tension and anxiety,

d. Flourishing, productive and flexible in lifestyle, able to adapt amidst adversity and able to cope in a variety of situations,

e. Able to develop trusting, affectionate and satisfying interpersonal relationships,

f. Emotionally stable, not easily upset or anxious, and able to channel negative emotions into productive pursuits,

g. Life‑oriented, interested in and enthusiastic about life and living,

h. “Spiritual,” not necessarily in the religious sense, but able to develop meaning, direction and a sense of purpose in their lives.

 

3. Recognize some common warning signs of mental health problems at work early enough.

Statistically speaking, young professionals should be especially wary of their mental health, as, according to Martinez, 75% of mental health problems emerge before the age of 25. She added that depression is the leading cause of death for young professionals, from 19‑25 years old. Martinez underscores the importance of checking up on each other, and recognizing that there is a problem before it greatly affects one’s well‑being: “Malaking bagay ang kamustahin mo ang tao, lalo na sa mental health concerns. The way we greet people as Filipinos is ‘kumusta?’ and our default answer is ‘ok lang.’ (…) But you may be broken inside, although you are projecting that everything is okay.”

Some signs to watch out for are feeling low, difficulty in performing ordinary tasks, risk‑taking behavior, withdrawal and self‑isolation, substance use, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, loss of interest in activities, and becoming too preoccupied with a sense of imperfection. It’s at this point that one must seek the help of a qualified mental health professional.

 

4. Be professional when it comes to handling the mental health concerns and history of employees.

Despite the exponentially heightened awareness of mental health in the country, it’s still a sensitive topic, especially at work. Provide support and accommodation to those with mental health problems, but also learn how to traverse the thin line between acknowledgement and patronization. Treat mental health issues just as seriously as physical health issues, but without any hint of coddling or babying.

Another concern that prevents people from disclosing their history of mental illness is the fact that in some cases, it’s not kept a secret. It may even go back to them in the form of distasteful office gossip. The rule of thumb here is confidentiality. Employees should also give their informed consent if they’re compelled to disclose information about their mental health history. Even then, asking about somebody’s mental health history is important only if disclosure is required by law, if there is a life‑threatening emergency, or if it involves a minor (e.g. if there is child abuse, you will have the duty to disclose to law enforcement). There must already be an existing case, or you must have reason to believe it is in the interest of public safety to disclose the employee’s mental health history.

 

5. Promote the positive aspects of work and the workplace.

So much of what we do for work is tied to our identity—promoting all the positive aspects of the work they do, as well as giving them incentives and a clear sense of what the company is about/what the company does will greatly benefit the mental health of employees. After all, everyone wants to feel appreciated and accomplished from time to time.

Martinez mentions that the four key elements of a good workplace include: a positive physical work environment, a positive psychosocial work environment, enterprise community involvement and personal health resources.

 

6. Recognize—and do something about—risk factors for mental health problems in your workplace.

Studies in the US suggest that mental health disorders have an economic burden of about 45%, computed in terms of productivity, lost quality of life and lost money. No employer wants to admit that their workplace has potential risk factors for mental health problems, but some self‑reflection or company appraisals may do wonders not just for the employees, but for the productivity of the company as well.

Common risk factors in the workplace include stressful working conditions, harassment and bullying, inadequate health and safety policies, poor communication and management practices, limited participation in decision‑making, low control over one’s area of work, low levels of support for employees, workload, inflexible working hours, unclear tasks and unclear organizational objectives.

 

7. Equip employees with positive coping mechanisms and opportunities to unwind.

Employees may cope in negative ways, such as by drinking, smoking, gambling drug use, too much sex, aggression and violence, absenteeism and even workaholism. Despite how much we glorify productivity these days, that last bit is not something to be lauded: it is, more often than not, a way for employees to cope with some other stressor in their life (e.g. a stressful home life).

Team building activities and opportunities to socialize with each other outside of the work context may greatly help the mental health of employees. Martinez mentions that some companies even hire masseuses to visit the office, so that their workers can unwind in the convenience of their workplace.

Orientations or workshops may also help, such as stress management, anger management, assertive communication, work‑life balance, meditation, life skills coaching and peer counseling.

 

8. Update company policies and management styles to include mental health in the picture.

Again, have policies and programs in place to benefit the mental health of employees. Review policies on the aforementioned risk factors, as well, such as company policies against bullying and harassment.

Management styles may also need to be adjusted, especially if it isn’t a good fit for the workers. Overly authoritative or overly complacent management tactics may be causing avoidable stress to a company’s workers.

 

9. Have an HR department equipped to handle mental health issues.

But this is not to say that they should shift their specialization to clinical psychology. Human resources aren’t just for recruitment and training—they’re the ones we go to if we have concerns or grievances, as well. Giving the HR staff (or even the entire organization) basic psychological first aid training will help prepare them in the event of a mental health crisis. Nobody expects these things, after all.

Martinez’s tips for administering basic psychological first aid are: nonjudgmental listening if the person wants to talk, identifying and addressing basic practical needs, discouraging negative coping strategies, encouraging (but not forcing) the company of family and friends, maintaining confidentiality, and culture sensitivity. The key point is not to do any further harm to the person, so as to avoid re‑traumatization.

Whether you’re in the HR department or not, you can do something to make your own workplace more attentive to mental health—and your awareness is a great first step. The workplace should be treated like our second home, and action must be taken from wherever you are in the organization or company to keep it that way.



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