Check Your Head: Why Mental Health Focus is Gaining Steam
By Josh Williams, Ph.D.
For many years, there was a powerful stigma associated with mental health issues. If someone had a physical injury, the question was, “What happened to you?” If there was a mental health concern, the question was, “What’s wrong with you?”
Fortunately, this is beginning to change.
There is a growing awareness of mental health concerns…and a realization that it’s more common than people think. In fact, the National Institute of Health estimates that 1 in 5 adults lives with some form of mental illness.1 This has implications for organizational safety efforts. Studies published by the U.S. Surgeon General show that 76% of U.S. workers reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition, 84% said their workplace conditions had contributed to a mental health challenge, and 81% reported that they will be looking for workplaces that support mental health in the future.2
Does this mean that leaders need training in clinical psychology? No, and there are differences between clinical issues like depression or anxiety compared to more common mental health concerns like stress, fatigue, and a lack of psychological safety. According to the Harvard Business Review, positive emotions like trust, curiosity, and inspiration increase psychological safety which results in higher-performing teams and more open-minded, resilient, and motivated employees.3 However, our experience is that stress and fatigue aren’t as widely discussed as psychological safety. A few considerations from the research:
- Neuroscience shows that increased stress leads to the release of cortisol and the inhibition of dopamine.
- This results in a host of cognitive problems, including decreased brain volume in adults.
- Stress causes impaired decision-making, judgment, attention, and memory, along with increased risk-taking behavior.
- The American Psychological Association estimates that stress is associated with 60%-80% of workplace incidents.
Employees report less stress when their leaders promote interactive discussions, focus on building relationships, and use more positive means for motivation.
- There’s a 37% higher rate of injury for employees working more than 12 hours on a given day.
- There’s a 61% higher rate of injury for those working overtime.
- Working 17 hours straight is equivalent to being legally drunk.
- There’s a 265% greater chance of injury for employees getting less than 5 hours of sleep.
- 43% of employees report being sleep deprived.
Leaders can reduce fatigue by hiring sufficient personnel, reducing excessive overtime, using contractors, and improving schedules so that employees aren’t working too many hours in a day, especially back-to-back.
In order to combat these (and other) mental health concerns, the U.S. Surgeon General recommends:
- Fostering work-life balance with autonomy and flexibility.
- Making work meaningful and showing dignity to employees.
- Providing opportunities for growth through learning and accomplishments.
- Protecting people from physical harm through safe and secure work environments.
- Promoting connection and community with social support and a sense of belonging.
The Centers for Disease Control also recommends: a) distributing materials to all employees about the signs and symptoms of poor mental health and opportunities for treatment, b) providing free lifestyle coaching, counseling, and self-management programs, c) offering health insurance with no or low out-of-pocket costs for mental health counseling, and d) hosting seminars or workshops that address mindfulness, breathing exercises, and meditation to help employees reduce anxiety and stress.4
One of the very few silver linings of the pandemic was an increased focus on mental health. This is not a fad. Over the coming decades, more and more focus will be on managing and improving workers’ mental well-being in addition to physical safety. Stay ahead of the curve and take active steps to make sure that your organization is doing everything possible to improve the mental health of your employees.