5 things employers can do to take mental health in the workplace more seriously

Taking preventive measures and investing in positive mental health can impact productivity, company culture, and staff turnover.

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash
  • The mental health crisis will have a cumulative global impact of almost $16.3 trillion between 2011 and 2030.
  • Despite the previously held stigma, organizations of today are inclining towards advocation for better mental health among the workforce.
  • Businesses can take several actionable steps to promote mental well-being in the workplace.

    Despite the mental health awareness prevalent today, addressing it at the workplace still remains a taboo for many.

    A recent WHO-led study estimates that mental health disorders cost the global economy US$1 trillion each year in lost productivity. Rather alarming, isn't it?

    Workplace budgets for mental well-being usually concentrate on helping those who are going through an emotional crisis. However, it is just as important to focus on precautionary measures and building a mentally healthy workplace.

    Taking preventive measures and investing in positive mental health can impact productivity, company culture, and staff turnover. Here's how you can do so.

    1. Promoting awareness from the top down

    Changing previously held perceptions about mental health is a top-down process. It starts with the top management becoming advocates for improving mental health in the company.

    • Have the top executives share their experiences (or from their close ones) in meetings or staff interactions.
    • CEOs of organizations should advocate for mental wellness and promote a culture of acceptance and support. They should seek to normalize the mental health issues and address the stigma surrounding it.
    • The organization should be transparent about their support regarding such issues and work towards projecting vulnerability as a strength.

    2. Create an accepting culture

    Research suggests that workplace stressors which lead to burnout are a major reason for the declining mental health among employees. While work seems to be a contributing factor to mental illness, implementing the awareness for it would transform the company culture into a supportive one. Here's what you can do:

    • Set firm boundaries around availability. It might be a simple rule such as not answering work emails on weekends or while on holiday no work is to be done.
    • Encourage mindful breaks. Not only does it provide a reprieve from grueling work hours but it also allows employees to bond together.
    • Start conversations around mental health. It can be some simple steps such as conducting seminars around emotional well-being or simply providing counselors to talk to.

    3. Proper support

    Almost seven out of ten (69.1%) employees surveyed in a study said that they'd use a confidential mental health helpline provided by their employer while facing any mental health issues.

    This shows that employees are now more open to having discussions regarding their mental state. It is now in the hands of the employer to provide the appropriate support and assistance to the workforce in regard to their emotional well-being.

    • One way to do so is to implement an employee assistance program or mental health scheme that will help workers to actively monitor and manage their state of emotional health.
    • Similarly, encourage workers to participate in mental health screening tests. These free and anonymous tests are a great resource to evaluate where your emotional well-being is at.
    • Offer options through which your employees can prioritize their mental health like flexible working hours, work from home, or paid mental well-being days off.
    • Invest in employee engagement software. Causes of disengagement such as burnout, stress or alienation can be indicative of emotional turmoil in employees.

    4. Clearer information about support

    Once you have established a support system, you have to make it accessible to your workforce. That means that any employee who needs help concerning their mental state should know who to approach for it. Subsequently, the mental health scheme in your organization should be easy to use and easily understood by any employee in the company.

    5. Train the managers

    Managers are in the perfect position to assist—they have direct day-to-day contact with their team and also have direct contact with top management. Even the most basic of mental health training will equip managers to look out for signs of mental crisis and stress and also to create a supportive and inclusive environment.

    A study by The Lancet Psychiatry showed that after six months of providing mental health training, the managers' direct reports had an 18% reduction in work-related sick time off.

    Mental health training for managers should largely focus on:

    • An overview of the mental health disorders that employees are most likely to suffer from.
    • Recognizing the signs of poor mental health in employees.
    • The ability to actively listen and have conversations about mental health with their team.
    • A clear understanding of how mental health impacts performance.
    • Having clarity about the role they play in addressing the team's emotional well-being.
    • Managers must feel supported when it comes to their own mental health, in order to offer the required support to their team members.

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    The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

    New research establishes an unexpected connection.

    Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

    Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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    • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

    We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

    A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

    The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

    An unexpected culprit

    The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

    What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

    "We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

    "Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

    fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

    Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

    The experiments

    The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

    You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

    For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

    Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

    The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

    However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

    The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

    As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

    The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

    The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

    "We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

    Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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