The word “pandemic” is enough on its own to spike anxiety in most people. Let alone living through one.
In 2020, life practically turned upside-down as communities united to slow the spread of the dangerous coronavirus. Schools shut down. Businesses closed. Workforces turned remote. People all over the country locked their doors with one over-arching goal: stay healthy.
And while worthy efforts like social distancing help keep people physically healthy, in some cases they also introduce mental health challenges. Isolation contributes to loneliness. Stress builds up as we take on new roles like teacher, caregiver, coach, therapist, nurse and others due to so many businesses and services closing or minimizing their operations. And of course, there is the worry of contracting the brutal virus, itself.
The impact on mental health was swift and severe.
Nearly half of Americans in a Kaiser Family Foundation poll said their mental health took a turn for the worse. And in April 2020, the month after the coronavirus infested the U.S., the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Hotline experienced a 1,000% year-over-year increase.
Even now that people are returning to some semblance of their previous social lives, in 2022, The World Health Organization reports a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression. Worse still, fewer people with existing or emerging mental health issues have been able to get access to professional help.
People are stressed and it’s impacting just about all areas of their lives, including their job.
So, if you feel like employee mental health is less than optimal at your organization, you certainly aren’t alone.
How Does Mental Health Impact On-The-Job Performance?
Mental health awareness in the workplace is nothing new. That’s probably because its impact can be detrimental to a business’ success. Mental Health America figures that disengaged employees cost businesses upwards of $500 billion each year.
Many organizations already recognize the value in supporting their workers’ mental health through their employee / lifestyle benefits. More than eight in ten employees say their employers provide at least one mental health offering, according to a report commissioned by the American Heart Association. But those same employees also said they wished their employers did more.
Walking the Walk: Taking Action on Mental Health Reaps Rewards
Raising awareness and fostering dialogue about mental health is critical. But talking isn’t always enough on its own. 57% of people say that if their employer proactively supported their mental well-being, it would help them to feel more loyal, be more productive in the office and take less time off work.
Plus, under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) reasonable accommodations must be made for qualified employees with disabilities, including mental health conditions. Suggested accommodations can range from technology aids to flexible schedules to job description modifications.
With all the new and worsening mental challenges arising since lock-down, perhaps it’s time to open communication with all employees – find out if there are any accommodations that will help each individual do their jobs more efficiently. We think you’ll find many requests will cost little or no money and yield meaningful dividends in the end.
Fortunately, not everyone will need accommodations to be able to perform their jobs, but most could benefit from some personal habits that promote good mental health. To help get (or keep) the ball rolling, we’ve put together some useful tips to share with your employees.
20 Ways to Improve Your Mental Health (and Feel Better)
- Recognize Signs of a Mental Health Crisis. And just as importantly, know the resources to get yourself or others through a crisis. Sadly, the number of adults experiencing serious thoughts of suicide has increased every year for the last decade. 80% of people who die by suicide are of working age, which means the workplace can be an important source of intervention. Training sessions could give co-workers, HR and management confidence to hold important conversations. Plus, keep within easy reach lists of resources including local suicide prevention hotlines, mental health crisis centers, etc.
- Heal from the trauma of living through a pandemic. Let’s be clear. You experienced loss during the pandemic. Everyone did. People, jobs, health, opportunities… If you haven’t yet, take some time to fully grieve your losses. It’s the first step to moving on so you can fully embrace the unknowns of the future.
- Feel the negative. A 2017 post on the Harvard Health Blog points to three different studies that suggest “feeling okay about feeling bad” benefits mental health. According to the article, accepting negative emotional experiences, rather than judging them, can lead to fewer harmful emotions when confronted with daily stressors.
- Talk. One of the best ways to combat depression is to know you aren’t alone. The late Maya Angelou once said, “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” Confide in a loved one, reach out to a therapist or join in the conversation on social media. Check out what other people are saying here.
- Begin your day with a mindful morning. Practicing early morning yoga or taking a few minutes to meditate can help jumpstart your day in a purposeful direction. The app Insight Timer offers 45,000 free meditations and can be a great place to start.
- Make daily connections. The sudden transformation to remote workplaces left many workers continuously toggling between personal and professional duties. As a result of this new dynamic, many employees find themselves missing out on the social benefits of going to work each day. With a little extra effort, these relationships don’t have to be a thing of the past. Use Zoom meetings, Slack conversations or other technology to check in on each other and nurture camaraderie among co-workers.
- Work your strengths. Because most of us view our weaknesses as changeable, we tend to focus on improving these traits and skills. But numerous studies show that people grow faster when they work on developing their strengths rather than improving their weaknesses. In addition, they’re often happier, more confident and less stressed when they use their strengths.
- Continue progressing toward big goals. It’s often necessary to revisit priorities and alter objectives as needed, especially during a nation-wide crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. Although this is helpful, and often necessary, try not to allow short-term solutions to completely replace long-term goals. Even when time doesn’t allow you to work toward them as much as you’d like, find small ways to continue moving toward big-picture ambitions.
- Get enough sleep. Typical adults need 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night. Failing to achieve this on a regular basis can impact energy, mood and motivation. Studies suggest a strong correlation between insomnia and clinical depression. Ensuring the body receives enough time to rest and reboot through the night is crucial for mental health.
- Consume a healthy diet. When we view the food we eat as fuel for our body, it becomes a little easier to make healthy choices. Substances from processed food can be harmful to the brain. Multiple studies have found a link between a diet high in refined sugar and mood disorders, such as depression.
- Exercise frequently. Individuals who work out on a regular basis tend to enjoy better health both physically and mentally. Exercise improves cognitive function, quality of sleep and helps people maintain a healthy weight. These things, along with the brain’s release of mood-enhancing endorphins all contribute to higher self-esteem and overall better mental health. If COVID has impacted your ability to get to the gym, YouTube is full of simple workouts you can complete right in your living room.
- Slow down. One of the most sure-fire ways to increase stress is to rush from place to place and task to task. Taking opportunities to slow down once in a while helps us clarify priorities and be more present in each moment. It can also lower our blood pressure while enhancing cognitive functions and restoring emotional equilibrium.
- Set realistic targets. Goals do more than define our success and failure. They give us reason to celebrate our wins. But it’s inevitable that we aren’t going to hit every target we aim for. And that’s OK. Goals should stretch us but should also be achievable. Be realistic in your situation so you (and those working alongside you) don’t feel like you’re failing all the time. Then find moments to celebrate – especially when times are tough.
- Take time for things you love. This will look a little different for everybody. Whether it’s hiking a mountain, golfing a round with friends or curling up with a good book, we all have activities that refill our personal buckets. Take time on a regular basis to do something you enjoy.
- Work in healthy lighting. The amount and types of light we expose ourselves to throughout the day affects not only our circadian system but our emotional well-being. Studies suggest that poor lighting contributes to depression and other deficiencies in the body while healthy light often improves mood and energy levels. Researchers have found that direct exposure to blue light can enhance alertness and performance. For more insight, you may want to read these articles: What Is Healthy Lighting? or LED Office Lighting: The Best Color Temperature to Increase Productivity.
- Get Outdoors. When considering the impact of light on mental health, nothing beats natural daylight. Experts believe sunlight triggers the brain to release serotonin, a hormone associated with improving mood and focus. On top of directly impacting emotional well-being, moderate amounts of sunlight also benefit the body physically by providing vitamin D and improving certain skin conditions. In addition to soaking up the sun, spending time in nature can relieve stress and promote both mental and physical fitness. Whether you run, walk, hike, bike, swim or something else, scientists say participating in outdoor activities help decrease fatigue, control cholesterol levels and improve heart health.
- Take a Vacation or a Staycation. Many Americans have recently sacrificed travel plans in the name of safety, but many more are ready to get back out there. You may even have a cache of unused PTO and/or travel miles just begging to be used. Travel can be rejuvenating in many ways, whether you use it to learn about new cultures, reconnect with nature or spend time with loved ones. And if you have access to lifestyle benefits like travel discounts through your employer, you may be able to do it on the cheap.
- Keep a gratitude journal. One way to combat all the negative input we receive is to proactively recognize the positive in our lives. Taking a few moments each day to write down a few things you’re grateful for triggers the brain to release dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters that improve our mood.
- Do things for others. People who consistently help other people experience greater calm, fewer pains, better health and less depression, according to Mental Health America. Further, one study found that students who completed 5 acts of kindness per day significantly improved their levels of happiness.
- Be creative. Expressing creativity can benefit the mind in more ways than one. According to one article, creativity reduces anxiety, depression and stress. Other studies have found that writing helps people manage their negative emotions in a productive way while drawing and painting help individuals process trauma they’re unable to put into words. There are many ways one can create something new. Some of these include art, crafts, cooking, web design, building and working on home projects.
- Laugh. Though it can be hard to lighten up during difficult circumstances, the benefits are no joke. The Mayo Clinic reveals data that suggests laughing stimulates organs like the heart, lungs and muscles while it leads the brain to release more endorphins. Laughing and positive thoughts can also improve the body’s immune system over time and help control pain by causing the body to release its own natural painkillers. If your funny bone needs a little encouragement, streaming services like Hulu and Netflix have added some excellent comedy movies and tv shows along with stand-up comedian specials.
- Try something new. Many of us like to stick with what we know, especially in times of turmoil. However, venturing into an unknown realm may be just the thing to bring about an adrenaline rush and a little happiness-inducing excitement. Undergoing new experiences allows individuals to tap into their potential and discover things they may not have otherwise known about themselves. You might try something like painting, cooking new foods, playing an instrument, picking up a sport or learning a language. Ask your close friends about some of their favorite hobbies then make an effort to learn more about one you’ve never tried before.
Baby Steps to Better Mental Fitness
Of course, many mental health issues can’t be cured with willpower and positive thinking. Every employee deserves understanding and dignity no matter their access to professional services.
But for many employees with stress-induced mental wear and tear, mental health takes work. Attempting to perfect everything at once will, without a doubt, lead to more frustration. Instead, pick one or two areas to practice until they become healthy habits. Then pick up another, and go from there.
Each person has their own unique personality, strengths, weaknesses and circumstances that will affect what they need at any given time. Understanding that is critical for employers who seek to empower their workers to be their best selves.
Human Resources has a unique opportunity within the organization to impact employee mental health. It often starts with culture and filters down to everything else, including a hearty benefits package with adequate healthcare coverage and other lifestyle benefits like employee discounts that support mental fitness.
For more ideas on how to support your employees in the office, you may be interested in our article: How To Beat Stress in the Workplace.