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5 Steps to Take NOW To Support and Advance Mental Health at Work

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The American Psychological Association regularly creates polls and reports on the stressors that affect Americans’ mental health. Its recent “Stress in America” poll revealed findings that should concern every manager, supervisor, boss and leader. Americans are worried – about almost everything:

  •   Inflation and the cost of food, energy bills, gasoline, and daily expenses
  •   The war in Ukraine and global uncertainty
  •   The economy
  •   Money
  •   Housing
  •   Children losing out developmentally due to “school by Zoom” for two years
  •   Unhealthy habits acquired during the pandemic (drinking more, gaining weight)

Author and speaker, Kelly McDonald, who works with companies all across the country on how to work with people “not like you” says, “There is a sentence in the report that jumped out at me for its awful simplicity: Americans are enduring, but not recovering. In fact, the report states that 87% of adults feel like there has been a constant stream of crises and 73% said they are overwhelmed by the sheer number of crises facing the world right now.”

Living with that kind of ongoing worry and stress takes a toll on people in every way, from their family dynamics and relationships, to their spending, sleep (or lack of), eating and drinking habits, mood, anger management, and ability to cope with daily pressures and strife.

“And then there’s work,” McDonald says. “Work is hard enough without having a constant hum of fear, anxiety and worry buzzing in our minds. As a leader, you can’t change the state of the world, but you can acknowledge the ongoing struggle of your team to stay mentally well and healthy. And you can help in small, but meaningful, ways that foster better mental health for workers.” 

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McDonald goes on to offer 5 ways to support and advance your employees’ mental health: 

  1.   Talk about mental health at work

There was a time when there was a stigma around mental health, but that is fading fast. We now know that mental health is one aspect of our overall health and in the same way that organizations discuss ways to help keep employees physically healthy, keeping them mentally healthy has become a priority.  Aside from any resources or programs your organization may offer, as a leader you can foster conversation around mental health at work. Start with a 30-minute meeting with your team and ask them to share what they do when they become overwhelmed, stressed or depressed. Sharing coping skills does two important things: it makes people feel less alone to know that everyone has moments of struggle, and it sparks ideas on how to cope that they may not have considered.  One woman shared in a group discussion that she knits when she’s stressed, depressed or overwhelmed. Another said simply brushing her cat soothed her greatly.  A man mentioned that he waters his plants.  Another said he calls his two best friends who live in other cities.  One person said they bake bread when they’re stressed and the smell of it is calming to them. These simple, no-cost, small-effort approaches work, and your employees can learn from each other.  There is no wrong answer in this exercise. Sharing coping strategies can also strengthen work relationships as people learn more about their teammates. 

  1.   If possible, increase the options for where, when, and how employees work.

Research shows that when an employee has a sense of autonomy, their motivation and performance increases.  Many companies are letting employees choose which days to come into the office and allowing them two days to work at home. One manager shared with me that she has an employee with a grueling commute to work.  Being at work by 8:30 meant leaving her home at 7:00 am. They discussed ways to cut down on her time spent in traffic and landed on new work hours from 7:00 am to 3pm. This small change resulted in cutting her commute to and from work by 90 mins each day! The worker later told her manager that she was now hitting the gym on the way home from work – she could get in a workout and still be home in time to enjoy evenings with her family. This simple shift in hours made the worker feel seen and valued, and she improved her physical wellbeing as well as her mental wellbeing.

  1.   Create “No Meeting Mondays” – or Fridays.

Employees report feeling the most stressed at the beginning of a new workweek; they are focused on deadlines, project status and more. By creating space in the week for employees to focus on getting organized and creating their plans for getting work done that week, you lower the stress that each Monday brings.  Studies show that workers start stressing about work on Sunday afternoons – a time when they should be relaxing and doing things they enjoy or need to do.  It’s actually got a name:  “The Sunday Night Blues.” By allowing workers to have one day free of meetings and calls, they can work without distraction and become even more effective. Some organizations have found that “No Meeting Fridays” work better for them because employees like to feel that things are “wrapped up” for the week, and they don’t have to stress about them all weekend.  Create whatever method works for you and your team. The goal is to build in large blocks of time to get work done.

  1.   Help employees to get out the door

Encourage your employees to take their vacation time, leave work on time, and take breaks. Hardworking employees often forego their breaks and days off or come in on the weekends to catch up, and this leads to burnout.  An exhausted employee is not capable of doing their best work, and you want their best work. Foster an environment where breaks and earned time off are part of the job. Start by modeling this behavior yourself. When employees see that their boss stays late and comes in on weekends, they feel they should, too. Lead by example on this.

  1.   Express appreciation.  Recognize good work.  Acknowledge effort. These three things cost nothing, but mean everything – everyone likes to be praised. Everyone blossoms when they feel appreciated. Tell employees exactly how much their efforts mean to you and the company:

 “George, I know the Johnson project is very demanding and I want you to know that I see the effort you put into it every day to keep it on track. You’re doing a terrific job, and everyone sees that. I appreciate you.”

“Janis, you killed it in that meeting! I know you worked hard on the presentation, and it showed. You nailed it. Great job”

Enacting strategies that focus on the wellbeing of employees will help reduce the sense of being overwhelmed in both their work and personal life. Each one of these tactics is no-cost and can be implemented immediately. Watch for the positive ripple effect as your employees start to feel the reduction of worry, stress and anxiety, and the benefits of better mental health.

Kelly McDonald is an acclaimed speaker who specializes in consumer trends and changing demographics. She is the president of McDonald Marketing and has authored four bestselling books on the customer experience, leadership, and marketing — all from the standpoint of working with people “not like you”. Her book, How to Work With and Lead People Not Like You has been on two bestseller lists. You can learn more about the book and McDonald’s work by visiting www.kellycmcdonald.

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