What you need to know about workplace mental health

What is the difference between mental health and mental illness? Is it the organization's role to address employee mental health? I/O psychologist Dr Aditi Raghuram answers these questions and more.
What you need to know about workplace mental health

This article is the first in a series of pieces on workplace mental health by Dr Aditi Raghuram. To read the second part of this series, click here: Is employee mental health a worthwhile investment?

Good health is good business.
- Paul Drechsler, Chairman, Bibby Line Group

Workplace wellness, mental health, mental illness, and wellbeingthese words are now commonly seen in the news and social media, shown to be among the core values of organizations.

But in reality, while employers are showing increasing enthusiasm and interest in the values represented by these terms, they’re also still grappling with its meaning and impact on employees and business outcomes.

In this article, I will attempt to clarify what some of these terms mean, why organizations should pay attention to them, and what first steps can be taken towards creating an improved environment that fosters good mental health and wellbeing.

Mental illness and mental wellbeing

Mental health is often spoken of in terms of dysfunction rather than, the general mental wellbeing of individuals—it’s important to recognize the distinction between the two. As per the UK-based Chartered Institute of Personnel Development and Mental Health Charity (CIPD), mental wellbeing is: “The ability to cope with the day-to-day stresses of life, work productively, interact positively with others and realize our own potential.”

Mental Illness is defined by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), as: “Health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.”

Many employers, when faced with the words ‘mental illness,’ react with fear and doubt. But it is important to recognize that people who have been diagnosed as having a mental illness can still have mental wellbeing. How is this possible? Mental illness and wellbeing are not mutually exclusive—someone with a diagnosed mental illness can still be high functioning with the right environmental and lifestyle conditions.

Consider the case of Nalini, she has a diagnosis for borderline personality disorder (BPD) and is a successful operations manager for a global organization. She is in therapy for her diagnosis, but is also in a supportive work environment. Her workspace provides her with accommodations for her needs, when her condition manifests in behavior.

Nalini went into the organization fully disclosing her diagnosis, and articulating what she will need in order to help her thrive. Fortunately for her, her reporting manager identified her strengths that relate directly to her work tasks, and helped create a safe working environment for her to do well in.

It is not always perfect for her, but by asking for what she needs and having an organization that assures her of building a safe environment to this effect, she is able to experience mental wellbeing. This, despite her clinical diagnosis.

It may surprise you to know that she successfully leads a global team that is responsible for 30 million dollars in revenuea win-win situation for her and her employer.

In short, with the right kind of support at work, people with diagnosed mental illnesses can also experience mental wellbeing and be productive.

What about people who don’t have a diagnosed mental illness? Do they also require support for mental wellness? The answer is a resounding yes!

Everyone has mental health, just like everyone has physical health. Some have better physical health than others, due to factors like genetics, lifestyle, and environmental factors like stress, pollution. Similarly, depending on the same factors, people have varying levels of mental health.

Here, I would like to point out the significance of environmental factors, particularly at work, because people spend the majority of their lives at the workplace and/or working. What they experience at work will spill over to their lives, and foster better or poorer wellbeing.

How work environment is linked to mental wellbeing

Human behavior is driven by thoughts, feelings, and emotions. As a result, everything we do is directed by what happens in our minds (our internal experiences). For instance, when you’re angry your behavior will be shaped by the internal experience of that anger, or how your mind has processed that anger.

In simple terms, this implies that when you’re experiencing intense emotions or stress, your mind is not functioning at its optimum, and this leads to ineffective behavior and decision-making.

Our experience at work contributes heavily to our thoughts, emotions, and feelings, which contributes to the quality of our overall mental wellbeing. Naturally, people who experience a toxic work environment have poor mental wellbeing, which translates to poor decision-making, communication, team work, leadership, and overall productivity. This is exactly the opposite of what organizations hope to achieve with their talent pool.

In an organization, the overall goal for the workforce is to maximize employee performance and productivity. This is only possible when employees experience mental wellbeing, which makes them produce better work and outcomes for themselves as well as the organization. Even the most talented workers need to experience mental wellbeing in order to put their talent to good use.

What impacts employee mental health?

Organizational behavior involves understanding and applying knowledge of three factors to improve organizational effectiveness: (Robbins, 2005)

  • Organizational characteristics (structure, processes, strategy, and culture)

  • Job characteristics (job autonomy, team processes)

  • Individual characteristics (personality, mental health, social skills)

Incidentally, all of these factors also play a role in contributing to employee mental health, directly or indirectly. For instance, culture, job autonomy, and social connectedness at work can have a direct influence on employees’ thoughts, feelings, and emotions.. Which is why it’s important for leaders to consider how each of these factors influences employee wellbeing, or the lack of it.

While it is possible to lead and manage a workforce that is not experiencing optimum mental health in the short-term, it is ineffective, expensive, and unsustainable in the long-term; here’s why:

  • First, the direct and indirect costs of ignoring mental wellbeing are staggering. In May, 2019, the WHO reported a loss of $1 trillion to the global economy in lost productivity, due to depression and anxiety faced by workers.

  • Second, the costs for consequences of ignoring sustained/chronic poor mental wellbeing are high: loss of productivity, absenteeism, aggression at work, theft, violence.

  • Third, leaders and managers themselves will experience increased stress and poorer mental health as a result of managing a workforce that is highly stressed and has poor mental health.

Part 2: Is employee mental health a worthwhile investment?

Dr Aditi Raghuram is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist, Steinbeis IEC.

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