Adapting workplaces to protect workers’ mental health is both easier and more difficult than one might think

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US employees are increasingly grappling with work-related mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety and burnout.

They were professors researching how employees interact and well-being in the workplace. After noting that occupational and mental health research had not kept pace with the growing prevalence of mental health problems, we reviewed existing mental health findings and worked to see how scholars can best investigate these problems in future.

We found that employers could greatly reduce the root causes of mental health problems for many of their employees through grassroots HR approaches, such as taking tasks away from someone who is perpetually overwhelmed or providing more work flexibility. But those fixes, as we explained in the journal Academy of Management Annals, would require job-related changes that employers rarely make or authorize.

We analyzed the findings of 556 research articles on this topic and observed that helping individual employees cope after their problems surface is much more common than taking steps to preemptively fix the problems that are contributing to workers’ conditions.

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Work culture and planning

When you think of jobs that can take a toll on mental health, some very demanding and stressful professions might come to mind. Doctors, nurses, soldiers and first responders, for example, often suffer from their regular contact with illness and death at work.

However, we have found that the tasks performed by employees are often not what lead to the degradation of their mental health. On the contrary, the culture of the employer and the way its workplaces are designed play an important role.

This pattern may explain why poor mental health shows up in all lines of work, not just emotionally demanding jobs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found, for example, that the suicide rates of farm workers, truck drivers and warehouse workers are among the highest in the nation.

An employer culture sets the stage for quality social interactions among its employees and, depending on the profession, with customers, students or the public.

How people relate to each other can prove to be important. For example, employees who experience bullying in the workplace and don’t have a boss or supportive colleagues to talk to are more likely to experience mental health issues.

The way a job is designed can cause stress, anxiety, and feelings of mental and emotional exhaustion. Lacking the authority to make decisions, lacking clarity about responsibilities and facing obligations that regularly conflict with personal obligations, infringing on personal and family time, can increase the risk of mental health problems.

Workplace culture and job design are also important for people who have inherently traumatic jobs.

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A review of 61 studies on the mental health of aid workers made it clear that poor leadership and insufficient support for workers caused disproportionate damage to their mental health. These factors were separate from the trauma they regularly witnessed and experienced in the aftermath of disasters.

This body of research indicates that all employers can reduce work-related mental health risks by examining how workplaces are designed and determining whether any positions need to be reconfigured for the sake of their employees’ mental health.

Mental health benefits

Employers have a choice. They can take steps to prevent mental health harm before it happens or they can deal with the consequences. Both are important, but according to the body of research we’ve reviewed, the latter is much more common.

People with chronic mental illness can thrive at work under the right conditions. And most U.S. employers today provide access to mental health benefits, in part because of the Affordable Care Act. The ACA, passed by Congress in 2010, requires insurance companies to treat mental health care the same way they treat physical health care when they offer coverage.

Approximately 78% of U.S. employers provide mental health benefits, including employee assistance programs and employment benefits that provide individual mental, financial, and legal health support. Such measures are helpful, but only after the damage has occurred. These benefits generally do nothing for work-related psychological risks and to prevent work-related harm.

Additionally, many employees who need help do not take advantage of these programs.

4 steps to reduce the toll your job takes on your mental health

Here are four steps employers can take to address the causes of mental ill health:

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  1. Review job descriptions. Employers should eliminate ambiguity where possible about basic duties and responsibilities. They should communicate with employees to make sure they understand why their jobs may require flexibility and adaptation. In times when workloads inevitably become large, as they do at accounting firms in the weeks leading up to Tax Day, employers should strive to balance long shifts with opportunities for employees to rest and recharge.

  2. Proactively train staff on positive behaviors expected of them. Just as employers strategically plan which job skills are important, they can also strategically identify which interpersonal skills are important and value them as technical skills with hiring and promotion. If employees behave in a bullying manner, employers can retrain, reassign or fire them accordingly.

  3. Help employees build resilience. Research on police officers suggests that when they receive resilience-building training before experiencing trauma on the job, it can reduce their risk of developing PTSD. Similar types of resilience training could also help in less inherently traumatic lines of work.

  4. Don’t assume that employees will talk. Only 65% โ€‹โ€‹of employees with mental health issues say they would tell a colleague, manager or HR representative about their issues. They may hide the seriousness of these issues even as they talk about them, due to the stigma associated with mental health issues. Proactively addressing the causes of mental ill health for all is critical, because there is no way for employers to know the extent of these problems.

Construction workers wearing brightly colored hard hats and vests receive a safety briefing
Employers can strengthen workers’ mental health, just as physical safety is improved over time on construction sites.
Westend61/Getty Images

Identification of dangers

Identifying physical dangers in the workplace is easier than identifying psychological dangers. However, this does not mean that psychological risks are less dangerous or cannot be addressed.

Requiring hard hats, posting warnings and enforcing safe working habits have reduced accidents in factories, construction sites and other workplaces. Similarly, researchers have found that redesigning workplaces and adopting better workplace cultures can go a long way towards improving mental health.

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