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by Dr. Brad Schwall

Positive Mental Health in the Workplace: Tips for Employees and Employers

Workin’ for a living, livin for a working…” This Huey Lewis song, which I hope is now stuck in your brain, describes the balance we all grapple with: Is our work supporting our life, or has our work become our life?

May is Mental Health Awareness month, so it’s a great time to take stock of how we’re doing with keeping a healthy life/work balance and promoting positive mental health at our workplace -- whether we’re an individual performer or a leader.

After all, the impact of depression and anxiety on our global economy is estimated to be $1 trillion in lost productivity each year, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness. And severe mental health conditions cost the U.S. economy $193.2 billion annually in lost revenue.

By contrast, the benefits of positive mental health in the workplace include increased productivity, greater employee retention, higher quality of work, and more enjoyment of work, among many others.

So, let’s explore how we can make our work and our workplace healthier for everyone:

A few strategic questions to ask ourselves are these:

  • Am I focused on personal development more than just career development?
  • What does a healthy life/work balance or rhythm look like?
  • What are warning signs I may not have positive life/work balance?
  • What is burnout versus a mental health challenge?

Am I focused on personal development more than just career development?
One important place to start in assessing how we’re doing with promoting our own and others’ mental health in the workplace is to focus on who we are across our entire life. No matter our vocation, job, or profession, all we really have to bring to work is ourselves – a whole person made up of emotions, personality, and history. No matter how we spend our time, we are healthiest when we are being our genuine selves. Without well-being in all aspects of our lives, it may be difficult to bring our best and be our best at work.

In light of this truth, we realize that it’s OK to think about personal development over career development. We build our career through our jobs. We build who we are by applying our values to our career. Personal development is the integration of our personhood with the daily tasks we must accomplish and the job we have to make a living. Does your chosen work encourage and enhance who you are? Are you taking steps to take care of yourself so that you can take care of the work you’ve been entrusted to do?

What does a healthy life/work balance or rhythm look like?

There is no denying that work produces demands. These demands may require a great deal of your time and effort. So perhaps rather than balance, we should use the term rhythm. There will be times when work requires much more time and energy than our personal life. But if the rhythm of work over personal life is maintained consistently, or at too quick and intense a pace, we will break down. So, we must find a way to create a rhythm that allows for care for ourselves, and for our family. Or else, the work we are doing will suffer, and we will lose out in every area of our lives.

What are warning signs I may not have positive life/work balance?

While there’s no magic formula to tell you what an unhealthy life/work balance looks like, your body and your lifestyle can give you some clues. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I have difficulty sleeping most nights?
  • Do I have limited pursuits outside of work?
  • Do most of my conversations center around work?
  • Am I frequently irritable?
  • Does my family often complain about my time away from them? Or has my family become so accustomed to my time away due to work that they no longer complain?

What is burnout versus a mental health challenge?

We notice burnout from work when we lack energy at work, or our worries typically center around work. We may also feel isolated from others at work.

Mental health challenges impact us across all areas of our lives. To determine if you’re experiencing a true mental health challenge, watch for the intensity and duration of the signs of stress. A “blue” mood that prevents a positive outlook and lasts more than two weeks is more likely to be a mental health challenge than burnout, which would be a low mood associated specifically with work stress.

Anxiety, including racing thoughts, and irrational fears that last for multiple weeks and impact our home and our work life are more likely to be indicators of a mental health challenge, rather than being anxious from time to time about work matters.

It’s important to share our thoughts, emotions, and experiences with others because we often get accustomed to a constant state of depression or anxiety, and we can start to believe it is normal. A trusted friend or mental health professional can often help by reflecting back to us what they’re hearing and helping us determine if it what we are sharing is typical or atypical.

Burnout at work may be relieved by taking breaks or a vacation from work, or by making positive changes at work. In extreme cases, you may consider doing different work or finding a different workplace.

Mental health challenges, however, will not go away with making changes at work or home. Rather, you may want to seek professional help in dealing with these issues and finding solutions to help manage them.

Think big thoughts, ask big questions

It’s a great idea to set aside time regularly to think about and answer these high-level questions. They can help us determine how we’re doing – and what we want to do more of, less of, or perhaps stop doing altogether. With that in mind, we can all take practical steps in our daily lives to promote positive mental health and well-being in ourselves and others.

Employers and employees: Tactical steps to improve your own mental health and well-being

Before you can be a positive employee or leader in your workplace, you have to start with developing healthy practices of your own. After all, you can’t give your best self to employers or employees if you are suffering alone.

Well-being comes from paying attention to every aspect of our lives – our emotional, relational, mental, physical, and spiritual lives. When we talk about mental health, we focus on our health. It is key to breaking down the stigma of addressing mental health to recognize that we can face mental illness – depression and anxiety have physical components that need to be addressed just as we would treat physical illnesses. We can strengthen and build up our mental health just as we can our physical health. We can be proactive with good “mental hygiene.”

Take a minute to think about each part of your life and consider these practical tips for boosting your well-being:

Emotional Health

  • Stay calm – practice calming skills, such as taking deep breaths.
  • Talk about your feelings with someone who listens well and cares.
  • Take a break – Know what works for you to help relieve stress – a walk, time with friends, reading a good book.

Relational Health

  • Have friends who encourage and give support.
  • In conflict, respond rather than react.
  • Forgive.
  • Accept responsibility for your mistakes.
  • Affirm others.

Mental Health

  • Expect the unexpected – we are all going to have harder days and tricky situations. Knowing they are part of life makes them easier to get through.
  • Be positive – catch those irrational thoughts and change them to gain a fresh perspective – avoid catastrophizing (thinking the worst will happen).
  • Look to your past – remind yourself of how you have handled situations in the past to help you handle the current one.
  • Be grateful – think about what is positive in your life.
  • Recognize that anyone can deal with depression or anxiety – seek support, reach out for help. Dealing with depression or anxiety does not mean that you don’t have enough faith or that you’re just feeling sorry for yourself.

Physical Health

  • Take care of yourself – sleep, diet, and exercise profoundly affect our mental and emotional lives.
  • Talk to your physician about your mental health too – there is a direct connection between our physical health and our mental health, so it’s important to let your doctor know what’s going on with you in every area of your life.

Spiritual Health

  • Build in routines in which you focus on your faith – faith brings perspective and is a great source for community.
  • Look at every situation as a learning opportunity – see your life as a journey – look to when you’ve survived and thrived through a difficult situation. Life will not be perfect. Our faith can be a constant.
  • Think about and focus on your purpose in life and the meaning you find in life.

We have long known that we can take effective steps to enhance our physical health. We are now realizing that we can also do a lot to promote positive mental health too. Your workplace needs you to be your best, and to promote and model healthy practices for others there. Focusing on every aspect of your well-being throughout your week helps you do that.

Employees: How to be well at work

As an individual performer at work, you can take steps to ensure that you stay mentally healthy and are able to contribute in a positive way – both with the work you do and with how you approach others at work. Here are steps to help:

  • Set boundaries. Let your supervisor know when you believe you can’t effectively do something in the requested timeframe. Be open to hearing their thoughts but know that meeting unrealistic demands over time will result in burnout.
  • Know your own limits. Try to develop a realistic view of your skill set and abilities. Be willing to grow and learn new things, but also be honest with others about where your strengths lie.
  • Exercise, sleep, practice a healthy diet, and stay hydrated. Determine what your non-negotiable health habits are, and stick to them. Just as you always make sure your car has gas before driving it, make sure that you are filled up with sleep, healthy foods, water, and time for exercise. You will notice an immediate difference when you are doing these well.
  • Read. Good books remind us of the larger world and renew our minds.
  • Journal. Express yourself and look back at what you’ve written for patterns, pitfalls, and growth.
  • Do activities you enjoy outside of work– both alone and with others. Have things to share with your coworkers other than work.
  • Spend time with friends with whom you can be open and honest. Share what you’re experiencing and check in regularly to make sure they’re not hearing warning signs about you or your workplace.

Employers: How to promote positive mental health at work

As an employer and leader at work, you benefit in many ways when employees are mentally healthy and have a positive mindset. Similar to families, workplaces can be healthy, or they can be highly dysfunctional. As the leader/manager, your role is similar to that of a parent – you set the tone for your workplace, and you determine what is acceptable and unacceptable.

So how can you promote positive mental health at your workplace?

  • Provide a supportive environment. Write down what you have particularly appreciated about workplaces in the past, and then be intentional about finding ways you can create the same type of workplace for your team.
  • Care for those around you. Spend a few minutes with each of your direct-report employees to ask what they value at work and outside of work. Remember what they have shared when praising or rewarding them, or giving them constructive feedback. Your intentionality and thoughtfulness will be remembered and rewarded.
  • Demonstrate empathy for employees, letting them know that we all face struggles. Cultivate an attitude of genuine concern for others, especially employees. The old adage, “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care,” is particularly true for leaders. If you are a person of faith, pray for your employees – praying will help you view them as the creations of God that they are.
  • Give attention to the person rather than the position. Seek to appreciate each person as an individual, beyond just what they do for your organization.
  • Have the mindset that you can add to the quality of your life by creating a quality work life for others. Demonstrating servanthood leadership is powerful, and you will be amazed by the rewards, as well as what it means to your employees.

There’s no denying that work is a huge part of our lives. The quest to keep it in its rightful place may be unending, but it’s a worthwhile pursuit. Taking care of our own well-being is the first step toward thinking about work in a healthy way and being our best at work. Caring about our employees and their well-being is not only vital to our organization’s success, but it can help make work profoundly satisfying.