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Mentally healthy workplaces

16 July 2013

If your business deals with complex subject matter, and needs to work constructively with clients and respond proactively to a changing environment, then good people will be your greatest resource.

Specifically people’s minds – their thinking, reasoning, emotional and perceptive abilities – will be the critical factors for your organisational success.

The state of people’s mental health drives the quality of the functioning of the mind, so mental health is an extremely important underlying factor to consider in an organisation.

To be mentally healthy is to have a state of wellbeing which supports social, physical and psychological functioning, the World Health Organisation says.

However good mental health in today’s workplace is often compromised – either through problems such as chronic stress, sleep disturbance, loneliness and addictions, or through common mental illnesses such as depressive and anxiety disorders.

Most organisations today do not actively ensure they do all they can within their scope of responsibility to support their employees to have good mental health. More often than not it’s a partial and reactive approach and may only include sick leave and employee assistance programmes (EAPs).

There are rarely well thought-out preventative approaches that could stop many problems getting to crisis point, and which would promote greater psychological strength and resilience.

Most organisations do not have strategies to encourage employees to develop the lifestyles, thinking habits and working practices to become mentally healthy and psychologically resilient, even though many organisations are starting to encourage good physical health in this way.

Acknowledging emotions

Professional cultures, even the medical profession, can be resistant to acknowledging the emotional experiences of themselves and others. This is possibly because emotions have been seen as the enemy of reason and the well-controlled, ordered environments that generally underpin a professional approach.

However behavioural research is increasingly showing that subconscious and emotionally-based responses drive our decisions and behaviours much more than we might like to believe. Organisational cultures that continually suppress people’s negative emotional reality, (such as fear shame and stress) can contribute to toxic outbursts, bullying, potentially physical health problems, especially cardiovascular-related, or mental illnesses such as depression. Of course over expression of emotions in a workplace can also be a problem, and this is where emotional intelligence becomes an essential skill for an organisation to promote.

Positive emotions should also be considered, as they have a powerful effect on boosting creativity, cognitive capacity and empathy, and can build psychological resilience. A meta analysis carried out in 2012 found that employees who have a high happiness score have “31% higher productivity; their sales are 37% higher; their creativity is three times higher” (Accor, S. [2012, January-February] Positive Intelligence, Harvard Business Review, pp 100-102.)

Humans experience a range of emotions, from the “positive” ones like amusement, serenity, awe and gratitude, and “negative” ones such as fear, sadness and embarrassment. Extensive research from United States psychology researcher Dr Barbara Fredrickson suggests a three-to-one (positive to negative) ratio of emotional responses is associated with optimal psychological wellbeing. Negative emotions are of course appropriate to many situations and popularised positive thinking strategies that aim to eliminate all negativity will fail in the long term. However too many negative emotional responses will undermine mental wellbeing and likely affect physical health as well.

Positive emotions can be easily increased through a range of socially and physically beneficial activities and habits. The most beneficial strategy to increase mental wellbeing also ensures a strong sense of meaning and purpose in life, positive social connections and regular engagement in absorbing activities.

Mental health support for your practice/organisation

The legal profession is widely acknowledged to be a stressful one (see LawTalk 811, 1 February 2013, p15), with higher than average rates of depression. Chronic stress can contribute to depression because it undermines protective factors such as maintaining strong social connections, time for exercise, relaxation and sleep, and the ability to reframe situations more positively.

A response to the grim mental health statistics can go beyond that of just advising individuals how they can seek help when they can no longer cope. A more effective and preventative approach is likely to be one where the organisation also promotes mental wellbeing for everyone, reducing the risk of stress and depression but also gaining the benefits that optimal psychological health brings.

Globally – particularly in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada – there are now a number of consultancies that focus on workplace psychological safety and increasing employee mental wellbeing, assisting organisations to measure their wellbeing and develop tailored strategies. In New Zealand one such initiative is Working Well (see sidebar) which has been developed by the Mental Health Foundation to help employers take a proactive approach to mental health and wellbeing.

Future articles in this series will outline proven strategies for increasing wellbeing at an individual and organisational level.

In summary

Things to remember about mental health.

  • Like physical health, everyone has mental health.
  • Mental health will fluctuate in quality throughout our lives, and will be affected by a range of factors, some within our control and some beyond it.
  • According to national surveys, nearly half of all New Zealanders will meet the criteria for a diagnosable mental illness over their lifetime.
  • Depressive, generalised anxiety and substance misuse disorders are by far the most common mental illnesses.
  • Because mental illness is so common we should all be primed to seek help when we need it.
  • Most people will recover from mental illnesses and this is helped by good treatment and support.
  • To be mentally healthy is much more than just not having an illness. Psychological wellbeing has its own set of drivers and measures.
  • There are many evidence-based behaviours and thinking habits that people can adopt (depending on their personality and life situation) that will increase their psychological wellbeing.
  • You can reduce your risk of physical and mental health problems by increasing your psychological wellbeing.

Hugh Norriss is the Director of Policy and Development at the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand, and also the Director of Working Well. Working Well is the Mental Health Foundation’s programme to support workplaces to be mentally healthy. Before joining the Mental Health Foundation in 2009, he has held a range of leadership positions in mental health services, including Group Manager of Mental Health Services and Mental Health Planning and Funding Manager at Capital Coast Health 2005-2009 and Chief Executive of Wellink Trust, 1997-2005.

Working Well – helping to make workplaces mentally healthy

The Working Well approach focuses on supporting organisations in three main areas.

  1. Increasing positive mental health (psychological wellbeing). Providing programmes and a workplace culture based on a range of evidence-based behaviours and actions that lead to increased employee happiness and productivity, improvements in their physical health and reduced risk of mental and physical illness.
  2. Assisting employees who have or develop a mental illness. Ensuring employees are supported to recover from their illness, can maintain productivity in their work, and are treated fairly and appropriately in relation to employer obligations.
  3. Protecting mental health in the workplace for all employees. Promoting psychologically healthy workplace practices and encouraging employees to live psychologically healthy lifestyles as part of their broader employee wellness initiatives.

Organisational support can be provided through:

  • an initial meeting to assess the mental health needs of your organisation;
  • creating a strategic plan for mental wellbeing in your organisation – along with the business case for it;
  • development of metrics for your organisation to measure mental wellbeing over time;
  • introductory seminars to employees and/or managers on how mental health in the workplace will affect you and your business and the positive actions you can do to improve mental health;
  • workshops with specific groups in your organisation, or on particular topics, to provide skills around dealing with mental health challenges and opportunities; and
  • ongoing consultancy and support to ensure that you maintain a psychologically healthy workplace.

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Last updated on the 17th March 2016