3 Ways to Build an Organizational Culture That Supports Mental Health

Posted: 3rd November 2023

Employers and managers are increasingly focused on the mental health needs of their workers, and for good reason. In the last decade in the U.S., there has been a consistent increase in anxiety and depression, especially among young adults. According to a survey conducted by KFF/CNN in 2022, half of American adults under the age of 30 and one-third of adults overall reported that they often or always felt anxious in the last year. A 2023 Gallup poll found that one-quarter of American adults under 30 indicated that they currently have depression, a significant rise from the 13% reported in 2017. In a Business Group on Health survey of 152 large employers in the United States, 77% indicated an increase in mental health issues among their workforce during 2023.

It’s good for employers to be aware of their employees’ mental health concerns. The more organizational leaders and managers appreciate mental health problems among workers — as well as the fact that these problems decrease work engagement, job performance, and retention — the more motivated they’ll be to create an organizational culture that promotes good mental health.

However, a greater focus on mental health in the workplace can backfire if it encourages workers to over-fixate on their negative thoughts and feelings. When people are preoccupied with their worries, they’re more likely to develop anxiety and depression or experience worsened symptoms of these conditions. Aside from the benefits of mental health awareness campaigns and public discourse, they also might have the unintended consequence of contributing to the rise in mental health problems by encouraging people to become fixated on their own mental states and to interpret mild forms of distress as being severe, which can actually increase distress. For example, if a person with minor levels of anxiety frequently sees others talking about their mental health problems and is encouraged to spend more time focusing on their own, they may start to think of themselves as someone suffering from an anxiety disorder. This can make them more worried about their vulnerability to anxiety (creating more anxiety) and more likely to avoid situations they think might trigger anxiety (making such situations more likely to be anxiety-provoking).

The cultural shift toward greater mental health awareness has helped bring needed attention to psychological suffering, improve access to mental health resources, and reduce stigma. However, it may also be increasing the pathologization of ordinary life, leading people to think of themselves as mentally fragile and unwell.

Well-intentioned workplace mental health strategies such as promoting self-care practices, products, and apps and frequently using mental health language in organizational communications might help signal to workers that the organization’s leadership cares about their mental health, but it can also unintentionally lead workers to turn inward and think about their own mental health unnecessarily and unproductively. This creates a challenge for employers. How can they support workers’ mental health without encouraging them to dwell on their negative thoughts and feelings?

The Outward Action Approach to Mental Health

Organizational leaders and managers should take advantage of evidence-based strategies for reducing anxiety and depression symptoms and bolstering mental health-protective psychological states that don’t encourage a fixation on one’s own negative thoughts and emotions. I call this the outward action approach to mental health because, instead of intentionally or unintentionally directing people to turn inward and focus on their negative thoughts and feelings, it orients their attention outward, toward activities that promote psychological flourishing.

Here are three evidence-based outward action strategies employers can take advantage of in their efforts to build a positive organizational culture for mental health:

Encourage Acts of Kindness Toward Others

A recent study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that having people engage in regular acts of kindness toward others decreased anxiety and depression symptoms compared to other interventions, including one involving cognitive behavioral therapeutic exercises aimed at identifying and revising one’s own negative thought patterns.

Notably, acts of kindness toward others were so effective at improving mental health because they took people’s minds off of their own problems. In other words, instead of directing people to focus on their own worries, it guided them to engage in activities that aimed at improving other people’s lives (outward action).

Other research demonstrates that acts of kindness focused on others — such as cooking a meal for a friend or volunteering in the community — but not acts of kindness focused on the self — such as treating yourself to a special meal or giving yourself a compliment — boost psychological well-being and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. This suggests that promoting self-care is not the optimal way to support worker mental health. Acts of kindness are most effective at improving psychological health when they’re outward oriented. This doesn’t mean that how people treat themselves is unimportant. For instance, excessive negative self-talk is a form of rumination, which is bad for mental health. However, directing one’s attention toward helping others can reduce negative self-talk by decreasing self-focus. It’s hard to be unkind to yourself when you’re focused on the well-being of others.

Organizational leaders and managers should look for opportunities to promote acts of kindness in the workplace. Start by leading by example. When team members see that their leaders value kindness, they will both feel more supported and inclined to similarly engage in acts of kindness toward their fellow workers. Leadership behaviors that can help spread kindness in the workplace include expressing gratitude to individuals and teams for their specific contributions, asking workers what you can do to improve their experience at work or help them pursue career development goals (and acting on that information), and regularly taking a little time to chat with individual employees about what they have going on in their lives.

Engaging in and providing opportunities for workers to participate in volunteer work in the community is another way to inspire acts of kindness. The more workers direct their energy toward having a positive impact on the lives of their colleagues, as well as people outside of work, the more they’ll reap benefits to their own mental health.

Promote Physical Exercise

growing body of research indicates that physical exercise is one of the best ways to improve mental health. It’s even been shown to reduce the risk of depression among individuals who have high genetic vulnerability to it.

Exercise is an outward-action approach to mental health. It is a physically demanding activity that helps take people’s minds off their problems, breaking the cycle of negative thinking that sustains anxiety and depression. It’s hard to dwell on your problems when you’re focused on executing a workout. Even the simple activity of walking in nature has been shown to decrease rumination and neural activity associated with mental illness. Exercise that involves others, such as team sports and group fitness classes, may be especially helpful at cultivating an outward-action mindset by fostering social engagement.

Employers can promote physical exercise in a variety of ways, such as offering local gym memberships or onsite exercise facilities, organizing employee fitness groups and activities, and supporting flexible work schedules that make it easier for employees to work out or take advantage of the benefits of outdoor physical activity during the day in the way that works best for them. Again, leading by example is a great way to inspire employees. If workers see the higher-ups utilizing exercise-related employee perks and opportunities, they may be more inclined to as well.

Make Work Meaningful

Finally, leaders and managers can support mental health by helping their employees derive meaning from their work. Meaning in life is a powerful psychological resource for good mental health; individuals with a strong sense of meaning in life are at reduced risk of developing a mental illness, more mentally resilient when experiencing stressful life events, and more motivated to engage in activities such as physical exercise that promote good mental health.

An outward-action approach to work supports good mental health by increasing meaning. For instance, recent research finds that focusing workers’ attention on how their work serves a greater good (outward focused) increases work meaningfulness relative to focusing their attention on how it serves their own career goals (inward focused). And it also increases work engagement.

When organizational leaders and managers are creating job descriptions, assigning projects and tasks, and helping employees develop career growth goals, they should explicitly focus on the meaningfulness of the work, with an emphasis on how that work improves the lives of others. Workers should also be encouraged to identify ways their contributions to the organization make a positive difference. The more employees are able to see their work as helping fulfill their need for meaning in life by making significant contributions to their family, community, or broader society, the more their work will benefit their mental health and overall well-being.

Source: 3 Ways to Build an Organizational Culture That Supports Mental Health (hbr.org)

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