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Why workplace mental health must reach beyond yoga

Samaiya Mushtaq
Dr. Samaiya Mushtaq is a board-certified psychiatrist at UT Southwestern Medical Center and a coach at Boston Consulting Group, where she was previously a consultant. Her interests include well-being education and mental health development in professionals and workplace settings.

As part of a shifting norm around mental health, many workplaces have joined the mental health space through offerings of wellness initiatives and educational trainings. And if they weren’t already, this year’s Mental Health Awareness Month in May against the backdrop of a pandemic was a necessary time to start.

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However, workplace mental health has been broadly applied to include anything from in-office puppies to group yoga classes to meditation apps. While these tools can all help people feel better, whether they are really serving the on-the-ground mental health needs of their employees remains a question, and one that I’m not convinced can be answered in the affirmative just yet.

Workplaces may be falling short for a few reasons. First, they may not always recognize the deeper roots of where mental health and the workplace truly interface. In her article “When Doctors Can’t Afford to Feel,” Dr. Rachel Pearson describes how her residency’s “wellness week” ice cream social, despite an intent to be supportive, instead came across as a tone-deaf implication that a pick-me-up could mitigate a mushrooming state of burnout and low morale.

Second, mental health initiatives can inadvertently be part of the organization’s need, rather than that of its employees. As wellbeing becomes a differentiator among workplaces, there’s more pressure to offer something to show that you are in the game, too. If the approach to mental health is with the mindset of checking off a box, a group spin class may simply be more compelling than rethinking the office‘s happy hour culture after an employee discloses they are entering substance use treatment.

Finally, when asking what can be done to support employee mental health, the answer may not be what a business wants to hear, affecting its level of buy-in. Can any number of deep-breathing sessions fortify one’s mental health enough to work 80-hour weeks? If the impact on the bottom-line of hiring another employee is greater than a few enrichment programs a year, are organizations willing to accept that they simply require more people among which to distribute the work?

Related: Is COVID-19 a turning point for mental health?

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What companies can do instead is shift the idea of “mental health awareness” to mean gaining awareness of employees’ collective mental health needs.  They can start with the approach mental health providers do: asking the right questions to pinpoint where their employees are struggling and why. Those include:

  • Are they seeing attrition or leaves due to untreated mental health disorders? And then: Is that because of lack of access in their current insurance offering? Lack of time to take off for a doctor’s appointment? Worry about employer reactions?
  • Are employees expressing burnout? And then: Is that because the work has become stagnant? Meaningless? Or to an excessive degree, with limited control?
  • Are employees experiencing isolation, particularly now? And then: Is that from a lack of inclusion efforts? Siloed work without a team? Poor team functioning?

When organizations can get specific about the problem they are solving, they can design wellness interventions that are purposeful, rather than reaching for default programs that may be a superficial fix, or no fix at all.

If the issue is actual mental health disorders, perhaps the solutions may be found in Employee Assistance Programs, education on treatment resources, or authentic conversations on seeking care. If the issue is burnout, the solutions may require a look at the nature, purpose and distribution of the work. If the issue is isolation, organizations could look to their affiliation networks, their diversity and inclusion efforts, their team dynamics for the role they play. The potential solutions are myriad because the various issues within mental health are, too.

When executed effectively, there is tremendous value in employee mental health programs. Beyond simply a healthier and more satisfied workforce, cascading effects down the line for an organization can include lower regrettable attrition of current employees and a greater value proposition in recruitment of future ones.

Workplaces have taken steps forward in identifying the need to be thinking about mental health in the workplace, and now is the time to dig deeper in understanding how to go about doing that. As psychiatrists, oftentimes our primary intervention is crafting and asking the right questions. We probe, trying to get at the roots of what our patients are telling us is on the surface. The answers may surprise us, and the answers will guide us.

Related: Strategies for managing coronavirus in the workplace