How to Inspire Psychological Well-Being at Work

When I was doing research for my Master’s degree back in the 90’s, I remember interviewing a number of directors from a municipal government about their views on employee health and assistance. There was a prevailing notion at the time that if an organization was the cause of the employee’s ill-health, they should cover the assistance, but if the condition was not caused by the employer, the employer should not be required to assist.

We’ve come a long way since then in terms of psychological health, but in my opinion, not nearly far enough. As Dr. Martin Shain says, “What happens in the workplace doesn’t stay in the workplace. It migrates out to families and communities and society at large as net social capital or net social loss.”

The opposite is of course also true. What happens outside of the workplace travels into the workplace and ends up impacting not only what employees are able to contribute, but also the social well-being of your culture.

Many organizations seem to get this and accommodate accordingly. There are a myriad of new tools available including the National Standard for Psychological Health & Safety in the Workplace (the Standard) that provide guidelines and resources for employers to help them support employees’ psychological health and prevent psychological harm due to workplace factors.

What is not as prevalent though is the notion of how to build a culture that promotes positive mental wellness for everyone, and how a leader’s practices impact this.

 

Maximizing Mental Energy

 

In an interview with Mary Ann Baynton, the Program Director for the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace (about to have its 10th anniversary), I asked her what the most significant changes have been in regard to psychological health in the workplace over the past decade.

What she sees now is a recognition that the measures that leaders talk about, like performance management, organizational culture, engagement, work-life balance, innovation, and creativity, are all built upon the mental health, mental well-being and mental energy of employees.

“When we talk about workplace mental health, we are not talking about people with depression. We are talking about the mental energy of your employees to do their best work. It is a really good business tactic to maximize mental energy,” says Baynton.

In the process of leading we have a choice. We can have a culture that is so busy and exhausting that people are always stressed and not able to contribute their best, or we can create a culture where continual renewal and resilience is possible. It is largely the behaviours and practices of the organizational leaders that make the difference.

Finding our own way to flourish and be resilient as leaders, and helping our teams and organizations find theirs is one of our most important jobs.

The downward cycle seen in many workplaces of being over-extended and exhausted decreases mental energy and changes the culture in negative ways. As stress levels rise, creativity and innovation drop; and as energy drops, we are more apt to misread communication from others and to respond negatively. These cycles can lead to burnout for individuals, and slow death for organizations.

A few years ago, we brought in a speaker from The Energy Project to The Better Workplace Conference who told us that many of our beliefs about performance are incorrect. The Energy Project, started by CEO Tony Schwartz warns that the trend we are seeing in North America today where people work 10-12 hour days is not working. Not only are we underutilizing people (exhausted people don’t perform as well) and seeing an increase in burnout, but study after study show that this way of working does not help us to be more productive.

Schwartz reminds us that energy is a renewable resource and that there are ways to use it more efficiently. He and others recommend shortening our focused work time and including more frequent breaks. In the work phase, just focus on work. No phone calls, Facetime or email checking (which is easier to do when the timeframe is shorter). When in the rest phase, do things that truly allow you to rest and renew, like taking a short walk. No social media or email checking, or you defeat the purpose. Schedule in time to check emails and social media as a part of your focused work time.

The Energy Project reports that people who take frequent breaks have 28% more focus and 30% higher self-reported health and wellness. Working too much without renewal drains the cognitive resources we need to control our behaviour, desires and emotions.

As leaders we can model and teach the practice of taking more frequent breaks to boost mental energy at work.

Finding ways to recognize and reward balance, fairness and community within our organizations is another way leaders can inspire psychological well-being.

An example of an initiative focused on improving fairness is the “Are you an Ally?” campaign, introduced at Sinai Health. This initiative teaches people how to be an ally to anyone who may feel they are being discriminated against or are in a psychologically unsafe situation.

They also place high importance on balance. In an interview I did with Melissa Barton, the Director of Organizational Development & Healthy Workplace at Sinai Health, and she lists the Standard as one of her most highly recommended tools. She says that they particularly use the Stress & Satisfaction Offset Scale, which is embedded in the risk assessment part of the Standard to get conversations going about the balance between effort, reward, demand and control in their workplace.

 

Leadership Questions

 

Here are some questions to reflect on about your leadership practices and how they impact the psychological health of your workplace:

  • Am I walking the talk?
  • What are my hypocrisies as a leader when it comes to maintaining mental wellness?
  • Do I role model good energy management?
  • How is my own anxiety level? If high, what can I do to change this?
  • How does the way I assign or schedule people to projects impact the balance in their lives?
  • How does my language impact others’ psychological health and safety?

 

Creating a culture of continual renewal is not the norm in our current society. It is a positively deviant choice that starts with self-transformation. To keep your workforce psychologically healthy and able to contribute their best though, it is the only choice. Without renewal of our mental energy, we increase the organizational risk of going in a vicious, downward spiral and burning out our best people.

Take a moment now to reflect on this post and to ask what deliberate move you can make today toward a more psychologically healthy culture.

Deborah Connors
deb@deborahconnors.com

Deborah Connors teaches leaders to radically shift culture so that people can flourish. She is an engaging speaker, storyteller, author and coach.



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