- The promotion of mental fitness and resilience in the workplace not only reduces stress and burnout but is also beneficial for financial success.
- Businesses can no longer afford to side-line the mental well-being of their employees – investing in mental fitness is crucial for economic sustainability.
- Failure to address workplace stress is currently costing an estimated $190m billion in healthcare costs. Mental fitness programmes can serve to reduce this alarming statistic and create healthier, more productive workforces.
The month of May is dedicated to Mental Health Awareness, but one month of recognition is no longer enough. Employers need to maintain a continuous focus on the psychological health of their employees in order to thrive as business entities.
Allwork.Space spoke to psychologist and mental health advocate, Bill Howatt, Ph.D., Ed.D., to find out more about the implementation of workplace mental health measures and discover how the organization he founded Howatt HR, and how he is encouraging leaders and employees to collaborate on programs designed to reduce chronic stress and promote mental fitness in the workplace.
Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Allwork.Space: Why are preventative measures to combat employee burnout, chronic stress and anxiety so integral to business success?
Bill Howatt: Reducing workplace mental harm and promoting positive mental health require transformative programs that encourage habitual change and practice. Talking therapies and drug treatments are around 65% effective in the treatment of mental health conditions – therefore, the primary focus needs to be on removing symptoms and positive psychology (learning how to create more positive emotions and replace negative thoughts).
Employers can support employees to become mentally fit through the development of positive habits and behaviors that encourage purposeful and meaningful relationships.
The attainment of peak mental fitness (as with physical health) requires time and practice. In line with this, I encourage all employers to enable their workers to develop personalized mental fitness plans.
Allwork.Space: Did the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbate an already growing mental health crisis and how is this being played out in workplaces?
Bill Howatt: The short answer is yes. Workplace mental health across the planet has become more problematic and concerning for employers since COVID-19. The more important question is how employers responded to this mental health crisis.
New research conducted by Canada Standards Association (CSA), a global organization focused on quality standards, showed that most employers are aware that workplace mental health is a growing problem that has resulted in more organizations taking action.
The challenge is many employers are focused on making plans and implementing programs and policies – but not monitoring whether what they are doing is having an impact. Random acts of wellness will not curb the mental health crisis.
What is required is for employers working with workers and leaders to create two-way accountability. All parties must work together to create psychologically safe workplaces that promote and support mental health and mitigate actions that are creating mental harm (such as reorganizing work schedules/ loads to reduce burnout).
Allwork.Space: What evidence is there that promoting mental fitness will boost profits for an organization?
Bill Howatt: Howatt HR published a report of over 8,000 participants on the Mental Fitness Index (MFI) 2.0 study. The survey replicated a Conference Board of Canada study that demonstrated the relationship between employee mental health and levels of productivity and attendance.
The evidence is clear. Workers who are psychologically healthier are more engaged, productive and at less risk of turnover or disability costs. Perhaps one of the most significant differences is with presenteeism (feeling unwell).
Workers who reported higher MFI scores had significantly lower numbers of days per year when they reported feeling unwell.
Allwork.Space: Are there any good practice examples of companies that have successfully implemented workplace mental fitness/health measures?
Bill Howatt: The challenge is to standardize aspects of good practice that are working well. There is a movement toward creating standards, with the push for Environmental, Social and Governance* (ESG) to focus on employee health.
In 2020, companies with the highest workforce treatment scores in Just Capital’s rankings outperformed the Russell 1000 by 4.7%. This is a growing area of focus that looks promising, as more organizations move toward obtaining evidence-based results using validated tools like the MFI.
* ESG is an approach used to measure corporate social responsibility.
Allwork.Space: What are some of the things an organization should do before it begins to tackle the issue of workplace mental health?
Bill Howatt: The first step is being clear on who will oversee workplace mental health and ensuring they have the core competencies to do so. Success will depend on a Plan – Do – Check – Act continuous improvement approach, not random acts of wellness.
It is essential to have the competency to collect the correct data, make a measurable plan, understand how to do workplace mental health audits, engage workers regularly in their experience, and balance prevention and support. This approach does not need to be complicated; it only needs to be intentional.
Like any craft, the person or people accountable for workplace mental health benefit from acquiring the knowledge and skills through training and mentoring by an external expert versus guessing and hoping.
There is currently too much guesswork without robust evidence. When you cut through it all, the organization needs to decide if it wants to take a “check-the-box” or an evidence-based approach.
Allwork.Space: Thank you for taking the time to speak to us today. Do you have any final insights to share with our audience regarding mental health and the future of work?
Bill Howatt: Positive mental health will no longer be a “nice-to-have” aspect of work. It will be as critical and as necessary as electricity.
Work can often lead to chronic stress, poor general health and even burnout. When this happens, employers discover that people (their most valuable resource) can be very hard to replace.
The future of work must be one in which employers are much more in tune with the emotional well-being of their workforce. Psychologically safe and emotionally flourishing workers will no doubt fuel this culture. Organizations will then not only survive; but also thrive in the future.