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Creating a Mentally Healthy Workplace

Published Monday May 3, 2021

Author Malcolm Smith

Creating a Mentally Healthy Workplace

Dear God! As we move hellbent into yet another year of business in the age of COVID-19, it just doesn’t let up. Work-life balance has become work/life stew. More hours on stuffy Zoom calls. Scared to go into the office and afraid not to. Schools open and then close. Mounting outlay against dwindling income. Relatives getting sick.

Grocery store trips that feel like preparing to enter a hazmat site. Family problems mounting as we spend more time together. Scary newsies constantly reminding us of the doom and gloom. How do I get that shot? You want me to fill out more forms? And more than 510,000 people dead. Arrrrrgh!

Don’t worry, I’m not going to beat you up with even more worrisome statistics and predictions. Here’s all you need to know. According to the Harvard Business Review, nearly 50% of American workers have self-reported a decrease in their mental health during the past year. That is both understandable and totally alarming.

The most frequently cited mental health concerns are anxiety and depression.  These are growing in both those who are pre-COVID and those who have had the virus. It’s a pandemic within a pandemic.

Depression and Anxiety
Think about the eight signs of depression in the context of work. They include: moodiness, irritability, fatigue, inability to concentrate, trouble making decisions, uncooperative behavior, low morale, substance abuse and absenteeism.

Notice anything? Couldn’t that have been you at some point over the past year? Is it you now? Think about your coworkers for a moment. Should you be a bit more compassionate towards someone? How does your shop treat someone with an illness? With compassion or avoidance?

Now let’s think about how anxiety manifests at work. These are just some of the observable symptoms: excessive worry and fear, lack of concentration on tasks, hypervigilance, irritability and avoidance.

Sound familiar? Listen to this. If you observed that someone in your workplace was exhibiting signs of COVID-19, wouldn’t you go out of your way to help them get the medical care and isolation they needed? Consider this. Working with someone who is suffering deep depression or severe anxiety also requires your immediate attention and your compassion. And that person just might be sitting in your Zoom chair.

In more than 45 studies on COVID-related mental illness in the workplace since last March, one response stands out in every study. Somewhere between 40% and 50% of workers suffering mental illness reported that NO ONE had taken the time to check in on them.  Did you hear that? No one! Duh.

Find A Bitch Buddy
So, your first objective should be to spend much more time acknowledging, checking in on, and having a few important moments listening to your co-workers, particularly those you supervise. One of the most important crutches to get us through this time is what I like to call a “bitch buddy.” This is a particular type of relationship in which you and your buddy can call each other, stand outside a coffee counter, or FaceTime with the sole purpose of letting it all hang out
without judging.

Review Mental Health Policies
Right now, review your mental health policies. Can people get help immediately, when they need it, without going through some slow and creepy EAP process?

Educate yourself and everyone who works with you about what is available, what the costs are and how to easily implement the process of getting help.

Take Screen Breaks
Understand that the research does not say we’re lonely. It says we are depressed and afraid. One source of mental illness is our constant exposure to screens. You can’t spend all day on Zoom, then help your kids stay focused on virtual school, while simultaneously being bombarded with images of body bags, worried physicians and crazy politicians and not add stress to your life. Unplug. Schedule time for nature and be a model for co-workers by declaring regular times to disconnect. Demand and give frequent breaks from screen overload.

Show Vulnerability
Share your own stories of dealing with this pandemic. Show authenticity to those around you. Let them know you are not simply a cardboard cutout posing for the camera or hiding behind that mask. Be real. Tell them how you are coping and where you failed. We learn coping skills from one another when we’re in dark territory.

Understand Inequity
Understand that, in most ways, COVID-19 affects minority communities disproportionately and more powerfully. Just as Blacks and Latinos are more at risk for COVID, they also are more susceptible to stressors. Minority communities, including those with disabilities, people of color and LGBTQ workers, were experiencing more workplace stress before the pandemic, and now their mental health is at greater risk. There is no “one-size-fits-all” cure for workplace mental health. The key is flexibility and inclusivity. Designing work structures that reduce stress and increase productivity during the coming months will be a well-rewarded skill.

Dr. Malcolm Smith is a former UNH professor and author who directs the Courage to Care Center in Virginia.

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