When it comes to mental health, often the onus is put on the individual to ask for help, engage in self-care, etc. But our environment plays just as important a role in maintaining our mental health as our individual actions do, perhaps even more so.
Mental health advocate Anthony McLean likens mental health to a garden — it all comes down to the soil. Picture a backyard, he said, with two different patches of land growing vegetables. You may tend to both equally, but one patch is thriving while the other is withering. You know that one patch is only thriving because the soil puts it in a better position to succeed. You can try to give the other tomatoes a pep talk, he added, but without the right soil, you will never see any change.
“Sometimes, even though we mean well, all the talk about self-care is just that, a pep talk to a tomato that is withering on the vine,” Anthony said. “We have to talk more about the soil.”
This is especially true, Anthony adds, as we’re coming out of a pandemic and a period of unprecedented stress. While it may be winding down, many of us are still feeling the effects within our bodies and nervous systems. Our mental health is informed by our environment and should be accounted for in a place where we spend most of our waking hours — work.
If we’re not talking mental health at work, flexible work hours, work from home options, or things like a four-day work week, Anthony said, then we aren’t being honest about how hard the last three years have been and the toll they’ve taken.
Together with Anthony, we explored what a supportive and mentally healthy workplace looks like and why it’s crucial for a productive workplace, especially in today’s climate.
The Mentally Healthy Workplace
A supportive work environment begins with its leaders, Anthony said. There’s an old way of thinking about leadership that suggested leaders don’t struggle or they can’t be vulnerable about their struggles. Today’s workers don’t buy into this. “The cat’s out of the bag,” Anthony said. “People are people, no matter their position.”
A mentally healthy workplace begins with leaders openly talking about what they’re struggling with, whether it’s stress, anxiety, depression, etc., and how they’re coping. This helps to normalize the conversation around mental health within the workplace and signals to everyone that it’s ok to not be ok, and they can ask for help if they need it.
To start the conversation and keep it rolling, Anthony said workplaces should engage in mental health training and workshops that allow the whole office to learn together and discover the benefit of normalizing self-care as part of the workday.
Self-care at work will look different depending on the office, whether it’s mediation, afternoon walks, regular stretch breaks, etc., but “if we can normalize self-care as part of the workday,” Anthony said, “we’ll see an uptick in productivity, creativity, and engagement.”
Proactively Preventing Burnout
While we’re talking about self-care in the office, Anthony said, it’s important to note that no amount of meditation workshops or employee assistance programs will compensate for overworked people who feel overwhelmed.
If you want to prevent your employees from experiencing burnout in the office, the solution is to stop overworking your people and giving them more than they can handle. “It’s cruel to give someone a workload they can’t manage and then offer them a side of mental health tips,” Anthony added.
Having ongoing conversations about workloads is essential. Anthony recommends including this, as well as mental health checks, in regular performance reviews. Use this time, he said, to ask people how they’re doing, how their workload is, and how they are prioritizing self-care into their daily work lives.
Self-care can’t just be at home, Anthony added, it’s something that needs to be facilitated in the workplace if we are serious about preventing burnout. People shouldn’t go home exhausted every day, instead provide them with the opportunity to get recharged and refueled while at work.
Normalize Self-Care in the Workplace
Unfortunately, a lot of people are rewarded in the corporate world for overworking. This is the cultural norm we need to break in order to foster a mentally healthy workplace.
Something as simple as lunch breaks and coffee breaks make a big difference in avoiding burnout, Anthony said. People follow a leader’s actions, not just what they say, so it’s important that leaders take regular lunch breaks and set an example of what’s expected in their workplace.
Plus, Anthony added, we need to bring smoke breaks back, just minus the smoking. It wasn’t too long ago when smoke breaks were expected at work. Everyone knew that it was ok to take a couple smoke breaks on top of thier lunch break. We need to bring those back! But instead of smoking, Anthony said, go for a walk, make a phone call, watch a show, play a video game, do whatever you need to do to come back recharged. Mental breaks, Anthony said, keep employees focused and prevent errors and sloppiness.
Other forms of self-care at work could include meditation breaks — it’s been shown that even 13 minutes of meditation a day can yield huge cognitive benefits —, nap rooms, and finding ways to implement play at work.
“When we make the ping pong table workplace culture, that doesn’t work,” Anthony said, but asking your employees how they would want play or rest implemented throughout their workday, does work. This type of culture fosters a mentally healthy workplace.
What Doesn’t Work
As Anthony has already said, a positive mental health culture begins with leadership. It’s no longer effective for leaders to pretend they don’t struggle, that they’re impenetrable to stress and anxiety, and put a smile on when they don’t feel like smiling. It’s ok to admit that you aren’t ok, Anthony said. Normalizing that in society is the only way to take us to the next level.
People will work for a leader that is authentic and they will be more engaged when they are allowed to bring their whole selves to work, Anthony said. This starts with leadership. And, of course, he added, in a post-pandemic world flexibility is key to supporting our mental health at work. Work-from-home and hybrid options must be a part of the conversation today to ensure your employees feel supported in prioritizing their mental health.
With a background in theatre, Anthony McLean delivers lively presentations on diversity, anti-racism, and mental health. He equips audiences with research-backed tools and actionable strategies to help audiences bring their best every day.
Contact us to learn more Anthony and what he can bring to your next event as a mental health and DEI speaker.