Employee Health / Executive Leadership

Leaders: fostering workplace mental health

In a recent survey from the American Psychological Association, 81% of the respondents indicated that: “how an employer supports worker mental health would be an important consideration for them when seeking future job opportunities”.  Job applicants need to be able to clearly identify what differentiates you from other organizations. It is important to understand what is “mental health” and what do employers need to do to ”support employee mental health”.

The idea of mental health originated in the early 19th century by a man named William Sweetster. He coined the term “mental hygiene”. I’ll spare you from the linguistic commentary that you can pursue on your own if so inclined. Mental hygiene was regarded as circumstances and behaviors that were thought to foster a “healthy state of mind”.  

A healthy state of mind at the turn of the century was probably some rich white guy’s perception that made enough sense to other “enlightened” rich white guys and history was made. The idea was that if an individual did xyz behaviors in an xyz environment then they would be of sound mind and a positive mental state. It probably involved church, a narrow moral compass and the snake oil of the day. Think of conformity. Think monocultural.

Present Day

Fast forward to today, mentalhealth.gov defines mental health “to include our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.” This definition is mildly helpful but not comprehensive enough for me.

A world psychiatry journal article from 2015 attempts to redefine mental health as follows: “Mental health is a dynamic state of internal equilibrium which enables individuals to use their abilities in harmony with universal values of society. Basic cognitive and social skills; ability to recognize, express and modulate one’s own emotions, as well as empathize with others; flexibility and ability to cope with adverse life events and function in social roles; and harmonious relationship between body and mind represent important components of mental health which contribute, to varying degrees, to the state of internal equilibrium.”  I find this definition to be stuffy and not that helpful.

Here is my definition and one that you can use. Mental health is the condition of your brain, including thinking and feeling. Positive mental health means you experience a wide range of feelings and can modulate them. With regard to thinking, positive mental health means you are able to perform cognitive functions like planning, decision making and problem solving in a manner that is developmentally appropriate.

That is a functional definition almost any employer can use to integrate into their plan to “address mental health in the workplace”.  Now that we are on the same page, let’s get into the meat of the topic.  What can/should an employer do to support employee mental health? What is the employer’s obligation? What works?  All valid questions for us to unpack.

Employer Obligation

Employees in 2022 have far different expectations of employers than they did 10 or even 2 years ago. Organizations that thrive have come to this conclusion and are working on finding a way to embrace rather than debate these new expectations. As an employer your obligation is to comply with state and federal law.  Destination workplaces have accepted this fact years ago.

What can/ should an employer do to support employee mental health? This is simple but not easy. This is the reason I have a job. As a human capital management consultant I take the ideas outlined in this article and make them a reality. Here is the secret sauce:

  1. Minimize the power differential
    1. Collaboration
    2. inclusion/respect
    3. communication/feedback loops
  2. Design the work around employees and business need
    1. Partner with employees to design a mutually beneficial work environment.
    2. Create working conditions that are dynamic and can scale. I know this sucks but if you do it correctly it will be profitable and self-sustaining.
    3. Define the outcomes and approach the process collaboratively.
  3. Manage your human capital using best practices.
    1. Fix your culture
    2. Fix your people process (onboarding, mentoring, development etc.)
    3. Collect and use data to ensure “a” and “b” are on track. (leading indicators)

What works?

Please reread the previous paragraph if you are uncertain as to “what works”. Mental health is a culmination of a physically and psychologically safe environment. If you are in a collaborative working environment, management will know the health plan sucks because there is an open dialogue underway indicating such. If you have crappy leaders they will have been identified through the regular 360 degree feedback that you regularly collect. Your XYZ policy has been amended to be legal/compliant and effective because your employees helped develop it.

You and your people have the answers. It doesn’t really matter what conclusion you arrive upon. What matters is how you go about the process of making the changes in your workplace and sustaining them. As I indicated earlier the process is simple but the work is hard. 

We started this brief read by considering the single self centered vantage point of some rich white guy. We have 100’s of different realites in America today including age, disability, gender, religion, geography, political persuasion, financial status, sexual attraction, and xyz status.  Inclusivity is not some liberal weapon used for political gain. Inclusivity is the solution to a reality that our world has changed and continues to change. If you want to be relevant and successful as a company, recognize this truth. 

Inclusivity is a precursor to good mental health.

I’ll leave you with a quote I heard from a speaker years ago whose name eludes me. “Privilege is invisible to those that have it”. As a white guy that is very profound. If you are a white guy and don’t find that quote to be profound let’s talk. Best of luck to all of you leaders that are doing or preparing to do the hard work of “supporting employee mental health”. Human Capital is happy to help!