We spend at least a third of our weekday hours at the workplace—and at least one other third of those hours are spent sleeping.
As a result, our psychological wellbeing in the workplace can be tremendously impactful to our overall quality of life. For some of us, our workplace can be the cause of a mental health crisis. For others, a challenge outside of the workplace can spill over into the office and affect our performance and our interactions with coworkers. But there is good news: today, a growing number of corporations are recognizing the importance of addressing the mental health of their workers. Trouble is, few are certain exactly how to do so.
Enter E. Kevin Kelloway the Canada Research Chair in Occupational Health Psychology at Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia where the Sobey School of Business is now celebrating the 25th anniversary of its Executive MBA program. The business school ranked number one in the region for life balance on the Ivy Exec list of top EMBA programs. Given the school’s top marks for helping students manage the otherwise stressful time of pursuing a degree while working, Kelloway seemed like the perfect expert to hear from on the question of mental wellness in the workplace.
“A variety of policy and economic factors have resulted in a ‘perfect storm’ that is changing the organizational landscape with regard to mental health issues,” Kelloway writes of mental health in the workplace. “In short, organizations…are getting involved with mental issues to an unprecedented extent and this movement creates both an opportunity and a challenge for psychology as a profession.”
In spite of the thorny challenges posed by addressing mental health in the workplace, Kelloway believes that the office can be quite suited to making meaningful outreach.
Kelloway’s latest article calls for a three-pillar approach to interacting with employees suffering from mental illness in the workplace. These three pillars are prevention, intervention, and accommodation.
Not all mental health problems originate in the workplace. However, the workplace can certainly impact the psychological wellbeing of its workers—both for better and for worse. To prevent the office from becoming the source of emotional stress, Kelloway recommends that organizational leaders assess their management style to ensure that they are not negatively impacting employee mental wellness. He cites studies showing the negative impact on employee performance and self-esteem of managers who are unfair or hostile. The good news, however, is that studies also show that good managers can improve the mental wellbeing of their reports.
“Our results show that when leaders were trained in transformational leadership, their employees reported enhanced psychological well-being. Serendipitously, we also noted that leaders’ own psychological well-being improved as a result of leadership training. Although there is much work left to do, these results suggest that leadership—and potentially other organizational conditions— can be changed to positively influence employee wellbeing,” he writes.
Even the most positive workplace leader cannot change the factors that may be harming his employees’ wellbeing outside of the office. However, much the way that schools are often where children are best targeted for public health initiatives, so too can the workplace be a highly effective place to reach adults who are suffering.
“Organizational leaders could act as resource facilitators—assisting individuals who were struggling to (a) recognize that additional help was required, (b) identify the resources that were available to them in the organization, and (c) to access those resources,” Kelloway writes.
However, leaders need to be equipped with a type of mental health first aid system by which to positively intervene. After all, most managers in the corporate world are not trained mental health counselors who are capable of identifying or intervening in an employee’s personal crisis. To assist in this regard, Kelloway and his colleagues designed a three-hour training session for organizational leaders to identify and address some of the most frequent mental health problems. Then, the training program helps leaders learn to assist employees in accessing the resources available to them through their corporations.
“We focused on training leaders for several reasons. First, as previously reviewed we know that the supervisor–employee relationship is important to maintaining positive employee health and well-being. Second, supervisors are typically in frequent contact with employees and in a position to notice variations in workplace behavior. Early detection and intervention improves the prognosis for mental health problems,” Kelloway writes.
In devising a system for employers to help workers with mental health disorders, Kelloway reviewed the literature detailing how to help employees who are physically disabled. Kelloway utilized this existing knowledge to address the two biggest challenges of accommodating workers with mental health challenges: bringing them back into the workplace after a leave of absence and keeping them from needing to take a leave of absence in the first place.
“There is some guidance to be had from the extensive literature dealing with physical disabilities. A systematic review of the return to work literature suggested several practices that lead to successful return to work programs. The availability of alternative work assignments or work accommodations, the use of a return to work coordinator, early and considerate contact with the employee when they go off on leave, and well-established channels of communication between the workplace and health care providers all appear to be related to early and successful return to work,” Kelloway explains.
Given the amount of time spent in the office, the workplace is a highly effective place to tackle mental health issues. By taking a three-pillar approach that integrates prevention, intervention and accommodation methods, Kelloway believes that organizations can better address this growing concern and keep productivity and morale at an all time high.