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Supporting Mental Health in the Workplace

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Supporting Mental Health in the Workplace

Al Waller: Half of our waking lives are spent at work, and it may surprise you to learn that sixty percent of workers are concerned about their mental health, and 44% often feel anxious and depressed, according to Transamerica Institute's most recent survey of workers. This is important because when people struggle with mental health in the workplace, it not only affects their productivity, but also their creativity, ability to problem solve, as well as the capacity to connect with others.

Welcome back to ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health & WealthSM. I’m your host, Al Waller, and joining me today is Mihaela Vincze, public health expert for nonprofit Transamerica Institute®, and today she’ll be discussing signs to look out for that indicate your mental health may be suffering, ways to improve your mental health, and she’ll also be examining the U.S. Surgeon General’s new framework for mental health & well-being in the workplace.

But before we get started, I want to remind you that we would love to hear from you and learn what topics you would like us to cover. Please drop me or Mihaela a note at [email protected].

Mihaela, why don’t we start with some of the basics in terms of what it actually means when you refer to being mentally healthy?

Mihaela Vincze: That's a really good question because the state of our mental health really influences everything in our lives. For instance, how we connect with others, how we make decisions, and how we handle stress. Someone who is mentally healthy can effectively cope with stress. They can work productively, contribute to their community, as well as realize their potential. On the other hand, a mental health concern becomes a mental illness when ongoing symptoms affect their ability to function, according to the Mayo Clinic. That’s why prioritizing our mental health is vital to our overall well-being.

Al Waller: Yes, I couldn't agree with you more, Mihaela. The capacity to function is not all that different from, say, building your home on a solid foundation. Without one, sustainability really becomes problematic. Now then, what are some of the indicators that would lead you to believe that your mental health may be suffering?

Mihaela Vincze: A mental illness can make you unhappy and can cause problems in your daily life. That's no surprise. I mean, it can affect your work, your relationships – some signs of an underlying mental health problem include excessive worries, feelings of guilt, sadness, or loss of interest. Other signs could include withdrawal from friends, inability to concentrate, problems sleeping, and physical aches and pains. Now, if you do find yourself realizing that some of these signs resonate with you and they’re interfering with your daily life, it’s advisable that you seek help from a mental health professional as many mental illnesses don’t improve on their own—and can get worse— if left untreated.

Al Waller: Well, it's probably not a stretch to predict that doing your best work while you're struggling in the ways you just described would be a significant challenge. As well, let's face it, the world already provides us with an abundance of stress in life in and out of the office. So, perhaps, you could cite how mental health issues affect businesses and their employees.

Mihaela Vincze: The CDC outlines how poor mental health can negatively affect workers in many ways, including their engagement with their work, the way they interact with their coworkers, their performance, and their capability to physically function.

Al Waller: Exactly and that's not a good place to find yourself. I also know, there's no simple solution or silver bullet out there. But what steps would you recommend people take to begin improving their mental health?

Mihaela Vincze: You're right that there is no simple solution, but there are some steps you can take to promote your mental well-being:

  • Take care of yourself. Eating healthy, regularly exercising, and getting quality sleep all affect our mental health.
  • Practice relaxation techniques. You may be tempted to zone out in front of your TV or computer screen after work, but it’s important for your mental health to learn how to activate your body’s relaxation response. This can be achieved by deep breathing, meditation, or yoga.
  • Switch off. It’s important to allow yourself to focus on other relationships and activities when you’re off work.

Al Waller: Agreed – especially on that last point, I can tell you from personal experience working full tilt over a sustained period – whether it be day in and day out, weeks, or even months – can find not only the quantity of your production diminish, but the quality of your performance will ultimately suffer as well. So, I'd really endorse your notion of turning the switch off or at least hitting the pause button on a regular basis – and by the way, remembering to breathe!

Now I understand that the U.S. Surgeon General’s office has announced a new framework on mental health and well-being that organizations can refer to in order to make their workplaces mentally healthier. So then what sort of impact do you see this providing for employees and their employers?

Mihaela Vincze: It makes sense to invest in mental health for employees—they’re the most important part of any business. And yes, employers can have an efficient, successful business and focus on mental health, according to the National Safety Council.

Companies who invest in their employees’ mental health and well-being, perform better in their outcomes— and better overall in employee mental health and well-being.

This framework lays out five key areas for workplaces to focus on that can build the policies, culture, and practices that will ultimately support well-being in the workplace— which can be helpful for both employers and employees alike.

Al Waller: As a sidebar, having worked in the HR consulting field for many years, helping companies hire and expand, I found that those clients who successfully dealt with mental health issues typically had the following:

  • Robust medical benefits, including a generous PTO plan, making sure employees took it or at least most of it
  • Maintained a solid track record of employee retention
  • Management philosophy that valued and advocated an open-door policy regarding communication

Now I'd like us to dive in and take a look at the 5 essentials in the framework you just mentioned.
Mihaela Vincze: The first essential is protection from harm. People need to feel that they are safe – not only physically, but also psychologically at work. Normalizing conversations about mental health should not be something that employees feel ashamed of—nor should they have fear of retaliation for bringing it up. As an employee, you want to know that you won’t be discriminated against for speaking up about mental health concerns in the workplace.

The second essential is connection and community. When people feel that they have positive relationships in the workplace, they feel more motivated to do their best work. And this doesn’t just happen because of a monthly employee get-together, rather it happens when people know and care about each other beyond their skillset. When we build relationships and trust in the workplace, we feel like we can truly bring our best selves to work—which benefits us, those in our lives, and our organization.

Al Waller: Couldn’t agree more there – protection from harm, as well as connection and community are definitely key. What else is included within this framework?

Mihaela Vincze: The third essential is work-life harmony. "Work-life harmony" refers to a state where an individual can achieve both professional and personal goals and have them intertwine and co-exist. “Work-life balance”, on the other hand, refers to the timeframes people dedicate to work and the time they spend outside of work—and it implies that these two are in competition.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the tension between work and life responsibilities really amplified for many people—but let’s be honest, this was an issue even before the pandemic. Respecting our boundaries between work and home life is harder now than it was 20 years ago, as there are fewer opportunities to really disconnect. When people go home, they’re often still inundated with emails, texts, phone calls that are work related, even on weekends, holidays, and vacations.

It’s important that employers encourage these boundaries—as they often successfully impact work. Your ability to connect with friends & family outside of the workplace, can help forge your skills for building good client relationships at work.

Al Waller: I think drawing the distinction between work-life balance and work-life harmony is an interesting concept. I can tell you from my HR perch, I'd have to give the millennials big props for insisting on setting their boundaries to achieve this type of balance rather than simply acquiescing and climbing on board that proverbial treadmill.

What's the fourth essential?

Mihaela Vincze: The fourth essential is mattering at work. Engage your workers in the workplace by providing a living wage or a wage that aligns with the value that they are providing. It also includes engaging workers in workplace decisions. When employees feel that they matter and their voices matter, it encourages well-being and enhances their contribution to the workplace.

Al Waller: Got it. And having worked with companies that have set up Junior Boards to help influence how management shapes their policy, really demonstrated a grasp of work-life harmony, as well as mattering at work.

Now, I believe that brings us to our final essential, right?

Mihaela Vincze: The fifth and final essential is opportunities for growth. We know that all of us have a need to grow. Workplaces can offer this through mentorships, trainings, and promotions. These areas together – protection from harm, connection and community, work-life harmony, mattering at work, opportunities for growth – are the five essentials for enhancing mental health in workplace.

Al Waller: So, now, that we've addressed the 5 essentials, it makes me wonder – how would you suggest workers use this information to better their mental health?

Mihaela Vincze: That’s a good question because you don’t have to be the CEO of a company to contribute to the mental well-being of your workplace. How you foster community, make people matter, provide feedback— all of these give you the power to make a positive impact on the mental health of those around you. You can also have conversations about this framework with your manager and discuss how you both can work together, for not just you, but for all the workers at your job to have these five essentials met.

Al Waller: I think that makes good practical sense and probably something that one might want to consider upfront – say, during their interview process to gauge how open and committed management would be to these values before accepting and signing on the bottom line.

Now for someone out there who's listening and may be struggling and needs help, where would you advise them to turn?

Mihaela Vincze: A few places might be a good start:

- If your employer offers an employee assistance program, you can find often find mental health resources for free or at a reduced cost.

- The National Institute of Mental Health is the federal agency that leads research on mental disorders and has great resources on how to care for your mental health.

- Transamerica Institute’s mental health guide: transamericainstitute.org/mentalhealth provides information on what it means to be mentally healthy and where to go for help.

Al Waller: Great resources and insights, Mihaela, and as always, a pleasure to have you with us.

If you’d like to check out any of the source materials mentioned today, visit transamericainstitute.org/podcast to review the episode’s transcript.

We hope you'll join us for future episodes, including the upcoming episodes on caring for your mental health during the holidays, and candid conversations with family members on tough topics. Also, in case you missed it, check out our previous episodes on Marketplace Open Enrollment and supporting caregivers in the workplace.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is brought to you by Transamerica Institute, a nonprofit private foundation dedicated to identifying, researching, and educating the public about retirement security and the intersections of health and financial well-being. You can find our weekly podcast on WYPR’s website and mobile app, wherever you get your podcasts, and at transamericainstitute.org.

If you have comments or feedback, please reach out to [email protected]. Have a topic you’d like to learn more about? Send us ideas.

Until the next time, I’m your host Al Waller. Stay safe, be well and thanks for listening.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is produced by the Transamerica Institute with assistance from WYPR.

The information provided here is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as insurance, securities, ERISA, tax, investment, legal, medical, or financial advice or guidance.

Al Waller is a long-time Baltimore native and employment expert with a 30-year career in leading and advising locally and globally based corporations on matters including: Talent Acquisition and Retention, Employee Relations, Training and Development.
Mihaela Vincze is a public health expert and experienced health care educator. Serving as Transamerica Institute’s health care content developer, she shares insights on health and wellness on ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health and WealthSM. Mihaela earned her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in public health at California State University, Northridge.