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By Sinakho Dhlamini, HR Content Specialist, Top Employers Institute
By Sinakho Dhlamini, HR Content Specialist, Top Employers Institute

Inside the Mind of the HRD... Mental Health at Work



The mental health of employees is a primary issue on everyone’s minds as the world recovers from the pandemic where globally we saw a notable rise in mental distress. HR Directors and employees alike are aware that they need to be more mindful of their workforce’s mental health, especially as they return to being in the office regularly. It has been shown, especially over the past few years, that successful companies prioritise the mental health and psychological safety of their employees.

Carolina Ringler, Malvina de Corbier and Everly Trovao (HR Auditors at Top Employers Institute) recently led a discussion on the importance of mental health and psychological safety while offering HR leaders insight into how they can work with their employees to improve the well-being of their workers. That internal discussion inspired this article.

Psychological Safety vs. Mental Health

Psychological safety is important to consider, especially in the work environment, and as such is important to not confuse it with mental health. It is created by an environment or culture of trust and respect that is created by a group, in our interest this is usually created by an organisation and the employees within. It related directly to the absence of interpersonal fear and the absence of interpersonal fear.

In this space people feel psychologically safe to do something they would usually conder risky. In a work context where psychological safety is present, people feel that they can speak up about work-relevant context. Psychological safety is not only the responsibility of managers, but it is something that everyone has a role to play within.

While someone’s mental health can be impacted by their level of psychological safety at work, the two terms are not interchangeable from each other. Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which someone understands their own abilities, can cope with normal levels of stress, can work productively and is able to contribute to their community.

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Why it’s Important to Prioritise Mental Health

The growing strategic importance of mental health has increased because of the pandemic, but it is important that organisations are not only aware but also that they also help to drive and shape initiatives that improve mental health and well-being.

It is vital that organisations are aware of their workforce’s mental health because while work can be good for overall mental health, it can also negatively affect their employees. Organisations can implement many effective actions to improve and promote mental health in the workplace, some of which we will highlight in this article.

Stress and Depression in the Workplace

There are many risks factors that are present in the work environment for mental health. Most of the risks are related to interactions between an employee and their work environment and the support they have at work. While it is normal to experience stress and sadness, it is important to know that chronic stress and depression are not.

Stress is a normal reaction to everyday life and within these normal ranges is not always an inherently negative reaction. However, when stress becomes chronic it can lead to anxiety, depression, anger, and issues in concentrating, among other things. Work is one place where people often experience elevated levels of stress that may, if left unchecked, result in negative effects for the individual (we focused on this issue with burnout in an earlier article).

Depression is also a mental health issue that many people face that affects their lives and makes work and working a difficult task. Depression is a mood disorder that causes feelings of sadness and loss with symptoms that include having a low mood, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, changes in appetite and sleep disturbances.

There are several other mental health issues that may impact a person at work and outside of work, ranging from substance abuse to anxiety disorders and others. Depression and stress are some of the more common ones that colleagues, leaders and managers can be aware of as they try to support the mental well-being of their fellow employees.

Achieving a healthy workplace that supports individuals who may be suffering from a mental health issue is not something that is only at the hands of managers to create. A healthy workplace environment is created when it is supported by everyone in the organisation. Organisations that care for the psychological safety of their employees will find that building this healthy workspace is a worthwhile experience. When business start to prioritise building a healthy work environment, they must also be careful to not slip into a culture of toxic positivity.

Toxic Positivity

Toxic positivity is a response to someone else’s negative feelings in a way that is not sincerely empathetic. That is because it usually dismisses emotions instead of affirming them while also prioritising feeling happy above everything else. While someone is trying to be positive and create a positive culture around emotions, they will need to be careful to not, unknowingly create an exhausting expectation for everyone to be happy all the time. It is normal to experience negative feelings and closing your mind to those feelings is not helpful to anyone.

How Can Employees and Co-workers Help

There is not a one-size-fits-all method to create a healthy workplace, but employees and colleagues can work towards figuring out what works best for their organisation. The responsibility of creating a psychologically safe workplace is guided by leaders, but it is made a reality when everyone in the organisation feels that they have an active role to play. They can do this by:

  • Recognising the signs of mental stress in other colleagues and themselves.
  • Listening to yourself when you feel unwell and being an active listener to other people in the organisation without toxic positivity or shame.
  • Seeking help when they need it and encouraging others to also seek help.

In response to the same mental health concerns, employers and leaders within the organisation can:

  • Be aware of mental health issues.
  • Make changes in the workplace to try and reduce risk factors related to stress.
  • Facilitate access to healthcare and be understanding and flexible to the needs of employees.
  • Work to combat stigma around mental health issues and encourage an open discussion around issues that employees may be working through.

Business leaders, especially those who are working within people practices, need to be in the lead to create a safe and respectful workplace. It is crucial for the performance of teams within their organisation but as employees play a more active role in the organisation, beyond their title, it is best that organisations welcome employee involvement. In 2022 54% of Top Employers included their employees in their well-being design and 67% of Top Employers also evaluated the effectiveness of the well-being programmes they implemented.

Organisations that create and nurture a culture that prioritises psychological safety will see that their team performance will improve. That is because if they are prioritising these factors there will be fewer missed opportunities for team members to raise concerns, or act on mistakes. They will also waste less time trying initiatives that are ineffective within their organisation.

When employees feel a healthy level of psychological safety, they are better able to face uncertainty and they find it easier to collaborate creatively. If they feel that their mental health is being protected, they will be able to trust their organisation and as a result they will work harder to succeed and stay with their company longer.

The need to create a healthier work environment that promotes psychological safety has only been intensified by the effects of the global pandemic.

Final Thoughts

In 2022 organisations that embrace the challenges of creating a culture of psychological safety in their workplace to support the mental health of their employees will reap the benefits of a happy workforce. While this work is guided by leaders in the organisation, the most successful organisations will work with employees across the organisation to support their initiatives.