6 Ways to Take Care of Mental Health in the Workplace
Are start-up founders more at risk when it comes to mental health issues?
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The music world has mourned the loss of beloved Linkin Park vocalist, Chester Bennington, in the last few days due to suicide. He was said to have struggled with depression. Mental illnesses are closer to us than we think, since they occur in everyday scenarios such as work. An example that recently went viral is that of Madalyn Parker, an employee at Michigan-based Olark, who emailed her boss that she needed a mental health day. Her boss replied and commended her for setting a positive example to her colleagues. "You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work," wrote back Olark CEO Ben Congleton to Parker.
An Inc. article by Matthew Jones in 2016 also discusses how mental illness can cost enterprises. “Mental illness and substance abuse cost employers an estimated $225.8 billion each year, according to a study by Stewart, et al. 2003 that featured a random sample of over 28,000 workers in the US. The largest indirect cost of mental illness comes in the form of decreased performance due to absenteeism, or regularly missing work, and presenteeism, or working while sick.” This is why employers recommend that employees use their sick leave for mental health so that they can bring their “full selves” to work.
Below are tips for both employees and employers on how to manage mental health in the workplace and reduce stigma:
1. For employees, inform your supervisor of any health problems
Let your management know if there are any health issues they should be aware of and try to work out a compromise so as not to sacrifice the quality of the team’s work. One example of an employee who worked out an arrangement with her employer is Camille*, an editor at a Manila broadsheet who has been with the organization for a decade or so. “I’ve been having panic attacks at home and was scared for my life so I told my boss that I might need to go on sick leave for a week or so, until I sort out what’s happening to me,” says Camille. She explained that her supervisor has let her go on sick leave for anxiety, as well as her other officemates who had the same condition.
2. As leaders, don’t overthink and, instead, focus on the present
Paolo Rentero, founder of Philippine start-up Digiteer says that in start-ups, it’s usually the founder who bears the burden and could be most prone to mental health issues. “It’s the founders who usually take the toll when it comes to mental health because they need to bear the burden and not pass it on to their team,” he says.
“Don’t obsess about the past or what could happen in the future,” he says on how to better cope with the situation. “Focus on the now because it’s what you can control. A lot of anxiety comes from worrying about the future.”
3. Look out for red flags
Rentero says that at Digiteer, they try not to let their guys get burned out from work. They try to make their work set-up as flexible and fun as possible. “We only have a four-day work week (no Fridays), flexible hours, flexible leaves, and sick leaves, plus we also encourage games and binge eating at work,” he says.
Bosses or HR managers should, likewise, be on the look out for red flags when it comes to employee behavior. According to Rochelle Marcelo-dela Cruz, HR manager at Emerson Electric Asia, Ltd., the more common red flags include: employees are no longer being responsive to the things that used to give them joy or excitement, they become aloof or distant, they are easily triggered or angered by otherwise typical stressors at work, they seem restless and lost, and they are often absent from work.
4. See your employee beyond the office set-up
For Ken Lerona, board member of the PR Society of the Philippines, it’s important to see your employee as a person and not just as a cog in your office machinery. “Acknowledge their humanity—as a worker, mother, brother, sister, friend,” he says. “As a boss, listen and be sensitive, give time off as needed. As a peer, listen and be present.”
“Just put yourself in their shoes,” says Camille. “Imagine if you’re the one who’s having panic attacks, how would you feel if people called you crazy? Simply think of the Golden Rule if compassion doesn’t come naturally to you,” she says of the stigma given to mental diseases.
Dela Cruz tells of one time where an employee experienced tremendous life changes that the employee inquired where to get professional help. “I referred the employee to a trusted psychologist from our university. The employee’s spouse had been less welcoming about the idea and bluntly asked the spouse [if she were going crazy]. In my opinion, while this reaction may come across as somewhat callous, it happens more commonly than we would like to think. Mental health is still somewhat taboo in the Philippines where problems are more commonly solved by talking to friends over a few bottles of drinks.” Dela Cruz adds that countries like the Philippines need more sophisticated ways of addressing and understanding mental health.
5. Have an institutionalized mental health program in your organization
“It’s better if you have a mental health program institutionalized,” says Lerona. “Have HR spearhead trainings and workshops if needed.”
Dela Cruz says companies can also help educate leaders and employees about mental health to help remove the stigma. “Companies may partner with institutions that provide services like counseling and present this as one of the benefits of the employees that they can periodically avail without associating the consultation to an illness or an issue to be led by an executive sponsor,” she says.
6. Take care of your physical health
It sounds cliché but your physical well-being goes hand in hand with taking care of your mental health. “Meditation and regular exercise help a lot,” says Rentero. This, together with eating well and getting enough rest contribute a lot to being better mentally.
*Name has been changed.