Seven steps to secure mental well-being in the workplace

As mental health resources across the country are set to receive a boost in government funding, business leaders have an important role in supporting the mental health of their workforce.
Sven Hansen outlines some steps that will help leaders understand and support mental health.

We know nearly half of our population will suffer from a mental illness at some stage during their lives. As much as someone suffering might try to put on a brave face at work or use their workplace as an escape, there’s no doubt mental illness is present in many Kiwi businesses.

Mental illness, diagnosed or not, is the leading cause of illness globally. Often it’s the culprit behind employees feeling stressed, anxious, unhappy and inattentive – and it’s costing businesses big money. It is the biggest risk to safety, the primary cause of suffering and main cause for lost productivity in the workplace.

Thankfully, as the spotlight on well-being shines steadily brighter, workplaces are waking up to the fact that they are not immune. 

But, here’s the thing, well-being initiatives, be it discounted gym memberships or flexible working hours, while well-intentioned, aren’t always enough.

Mental health runs deep and it’s up to business leaders to understand, lead and support solutions if they genuinely want to reduce suffering and improve productivity in their workplace. In fact, when leadership is informed and committed the impact is two to three times greater.

I have compiled these researched-based steps to help leaders have better conversations about mental health and promote mental well-being in the workplace.

1. Understand where mental illness comes from: Genes, early environment, adverse events and our personal behaviours all contribute in complex ways. We have much to learn but destructive childhood experiences, more than two hours a day on social media, disturbed sleep and increased temperature are thought to be causative.

Heat, weather events and human conflict increase the risk of violence, anxiety, depression and PTSD. Anxious parenting, excess sensitivity, reduced activity, limited outdoor time and isolation are correlated. Learning the practices of resilience is definitely protective and part of recovery.

2. Recognise distress as a normal part of dealing with adversity: Our fast-paced, digital lives assail us with small, continuous threats and has reduced the time we have to recover, sleep and reconnect with loved ones. Some people respond to these threats with sadness as they feel worn down, dominated, isolated or abused. Some experience fear. Others get angry as they flail against difficulty.

While these reactions are normal, some people can get stuck in unpleasant emotions until they dominate their being. Sadness becomes depression. Fear becomes anxiety. Anger becomes hostility.

If you notice an employee in distress, where their reactions become inappropriate to the context, understand that this could be mental illness. It is a good idea to establish a ‘mental health first aid’ process for your organisation that outlines how to considerately approach and support employees who could be suffering.

3. Know that recovery is possible and treatment is effective: Recovery, over time, is the normal outcome. Even in the case of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, sensible life management and treatment is effective.

In depression, anxiety and hostility, firm and caring support, lifestyle improvement, counselling, meditation, positivity and thinking skills can be curative. Medication should not be the default treatment.

4. Learn ways to counter anxiety and depression: Signs of fear for those with anxiety – and, in fact, anyone – can be countered with a calm response. Suggest writing fears down in order to challenge them. Moving about, gentle music, relaxing our muscles, slowing breathing and seeking safe, reassuring spaces – particularly outside with fresh air and nature – all help.

5. Learn the practical steps of rapid bounce: Mastering bounce is the key to resilience, both sustaining optimal life and growing from adversity (post-traumatic growth). Encourage the practice of specific practical actions that can reverse the downward spiral; seeking help, renewing, connecting, refreshing, simplifying.

6. Emphasise the importance of self-care: Taking good care of your body is proven to treat mental illness. A healthy body is the core of a good life, prevention, resilience and recovery. Sleeping well, eating well – less sugar, more vegetables and more Mediterranean food – experiencing nature and sunshine most days, stretching every morning, and slowed breathing and relaxation for at least eight minutes per day are encouraged.

Think about ways in which your business can support self-care. It could be establishing mandatory email-free hours between 7pm and 7am, providing free fruit in shared spaces or creating a quiet ‘time out’ space in the office.

7. Be kind and considerate to others: Seek joy and fulfilment by doing good things for others. It helps you as much or more than those you help.

Start by being kind to yourself. Many of us are self-critical and hard on ourselves. Be gentle on yourself. Remember your goodness. Take time to enjoy and celebrate. To get started, sit quietly breathing slowly. As you inhale bring kindness inward. As you exhale let your goodness radiate out.

Use your altruism to get your organisation involved in a charity or helping someone in need.

Even sitting quietly and radiating out peace, love and joy to everyone you can think of has a powerful positive on every aspect of well-being – even the structure and function of your brain.  M


Dr Sven Hansen is the founder of The Resilience Institute. The institute’s new Programme, A Leader’s Guide to Mental Health at Work, is designed to equip leaders with the skills to have better conversations about mental health and promote mental well-being.

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