Leadership Strategies to Improve Mental Health in the Workplace
Around 25% of the UK suffer from mental illness each year . Providing you're in a stable job with a positive environment, work shouldn't contribute negatively to your mental health . For many people, merely having a job is enough to improve their well-being. They have a reason to get up in the morning, interact with people regularly, and have a sense of routine. Not only does this establish a sense of purpose, but it provides a welcome distraction from the toll of mental health issues.
The stress of unemployment is often unbearable. Whether you are known to suffer from mental health or not, unemployment will encourage feelings of stress, anxiety and a lack of motivation. And whilst working has its benefits, it is entirely circumstantial. Being in a work environment fuelled with negativity, workplace bullying or even 'unclear tasks or organisational objectives'  can be detrimental to someone's workplace health and well-being. Unfortunately, that environment is far more common than it should be.
Often, we don't realise how impactful our work situation can be. Bart Verkuil et al. conducted a study exploring the correlations between mental health and workplace bullying. Within this, they disclosed that 33% of those who struggle with mental health attribute work as the primary cause .
When it comes to creating a positive workplace, a considerable amount of responsibility falls on those in a leadership role. Mental health must be a priority in the workplace. So, what exactly can leadership teams do to improve mental health?
The most invaluable tool is checking in with your team. It might seem like a straightforward thing to do, but according to Kelly Greenwood and Natasha Krol, 40% of workers said that 'no one at their company had asked them if they were doing OK' .
Artistic Director of Bristol-based company The Delight Collective and Theatre School Manager of The Bristol Improv Theatre, Imogen Palmer, embeds weekly group or one-to-one check-ins with her team. In an exclusive interview for this article, she disclosed the benefits of checking in with your team. The concept originated from drama therapist Holly Stoppitt . Palmer uses two prompts: how are you doing physically, and how are you doing emotionally.
What is critical in Palmer's approach is that the individual can say 'as much or as little as they like' , making it a pressure-free situation that allows each person 'to "land" in the room' . Not to mention, it 'alleviates anxiety for participants because they can give the group the heads up if they're feeling a bit stressed or vulnerable that day' .
To some people, the idea of baring all to their co-workers is terrifying. But, creating a safe space where employees feel they can be honest about their mental well-being is exceedingly worthwhile. Palmer argues that check-ins are 'the most powerful tool [she has] found for safeguarding mental and physical health'  within a workplace.
So, make an effort to check-in with your team. It is pivotal in developing positive workplace health and well-being.
Put on Your Oxygen Mask First
A leadership role is still part of the team. Don't forget to address your well-being, as well as that of your employees. Aside from benefiting your mental health, your team will see you as human and relatable.
Imogen Palmer states that being a model for openness in the workplace is 'very nerve-wracking' . But she believes that 'it helps the room relax if the person [in the leadership role] can be honest about feeling a bit wobbly or having had a stressful day' . And when a staggering 58% of people trust strangers more than their boss , being vulnerable and open with your employees is paramount. As stated by Kelly Greenwood and Natasha Kol, 'model it so that your team members feel they can prioritise self-care and set boundaries' .
Communication is Key
Uncertainty and a lack of clarity are damaging to mental health. If there is a project in the works that your employee is involved in, you might consider it easier only to update them once you are confident of a definitive outcome. But sometimes, a process like that can take a fair while to cement. Keeping your employees in the loop as much as possible is vital. It will make them feel secure and far less anxious about a result they are anticipating. And, as a consequence, will improve their workplace health.
Times are tough right now; we are all trying to find our feet working amidst a global pandemic. Since lockdown started, studies have shown that employees who felt their managers were weak communicators have been 23% more likely to suffer from declining mental health than others . Reassure your team and lift the pressure off of them by updating them on the company's COVID procedures, or even by helping them get back into the swing of their role.
Positivity Breeds Positivity
Aside from communicating and checking-in, affirmation and rewards are surprisingly effective ways to improve morale and workplace health. If you notice a co-worker doing a great job, tell them. A little bit of positivity goes a long way. Maybe try opening a daily meeting with positive attributes from the past week, rather than any negative aspects. Be a beacon of alacrity, and others will feel inspired to do the same.
Finally, support your team. Provide them with resources that could help them seek further help for their mental health issues. Moreover, normalise asking for help. When you implement check-ins and cultivate a positive work environment, you should notice a greater connection with your team. Try to avoid making yourself, as their boss, seem intimidating and standoffish. Being approachable will make your co-workers far more comfortable to confide in you if they are struggling.
The key is to allow yourself to be vulnerable, communicative, and positive. Like a ripple in the water, your employees will follow your lead. Eventually, you will create a more positive atmosphere and improve you and your team's mental and workplace health. Remember, whether it has an extraordinary impact on mental health in your workplace or not, there is no harm in encouraging a positive work environment.
- How common are mental health problems? | Mind, the mental health charity - help for mental health problems [Internet]. Mind.org.uk. 2013.
- Hobson J. Is Work Good for Your Health and Well-Being? Occupational Medicine. 2007 Jan 16;57(3):229–229.
- World Health Organisation. Mental health in the workplace [Internet]. World Health Organization. 2017.
- Verkuil B, Atasayi S, Molendijk ML. Workplace Bullying and Mental Health: A Meta-Analysis on Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Data. Courvoisier DS, editor. PLOS ONE. 2015 Aug 25;10(8):e0135225.
- Greenwood K, Krol N. 8 Ways Managers Can Support Employees’ Mental Health [Internet]. Harvard Business Review. 2020.
- Palmer I. The Benefits of Check-Ins - An Open Discussion. 2020. More information available from: https://www.thedelightcollective.co.uk/ or improvtheatre.net
- Nordstrom DS and T. 10 Shocking Workplace Stats You Need To Know [Internet]. Forbes. 2018 [cited 2020 Aug 24].