Fostering Mental Wellness in the Workplace

By Candice Wagener | Photo from Shutterstock

In the midst of an “employee’s market,” employers are evaluating how to recruit and retain successfully. One area that deserves more investment is employees’ mental health and wellbeing.

According to a July 2021 report by SilverCloud Health, an employer wellness platform, 84% of employees report that they rarely mean it every time they say they’re “fine” or “good.” Truthfully, two-thirds of employees have clinically measurable mental health symptoms of anxiety or depression.

Jacy Imilkowski, a Madison-based mental fitness coach that helps people recognize and stop unintentional self-sabotage (such as perfectionism and micromanagement), says the old-school concept of leaving your personal baggage at the door when it comes to your career just doesn’t work.

“Employers need to recognize that employees’ home lives are valid and important. That time they need off to address things at home … is really important, and making people fight for time off, or guilting them about time they need or making them feel like their personal needs are less valid or less important is really going to degrade people’s values [and] their self worth. It’s going to tear them in multiple directions and that is not conducive to good mental health,” explains Imilkowski.

She recommends organizations provide training and development to their leaders on how to be more open and vulnerable about their own challenges. Noting that many leaders would prefer to make empathetic decisions, but opt to lean on data instead, Imilkowski encourages managers to view emotions as science, and to realize making decisions without considering emotions is using only half the data.

“We don’t have to be touchy-feely, ‘woo woo’ with everything, [but] we have to acknowledge that emotions are real.”

Likewise, Imilkowski says leaders need to promote and respect healthy boundaries. For example, when an employee leaves work at 4:30 p.m. every day to pick up their kids, that decision should be celebrated, not shamed. Or if an employee needs to take a mental health day, whether because of a diagnosed mental health condition or they need a day to recharge, that should be accepted and valued.

Tapping into employees’ values and finding ways to help them do things that are resonant and important to them will help employees feel more fulfilled by the work that they’re doing, says Imilkowksi.

An often-overlooked opportunity for mental health cultivation is Employee Assistance Programs, or EAPs. Employers wrongly assume employees understand their EAP.

“Statistics show that only 1% of employees actually utilize that program at all,” says Brandie de la Rosa, CEO of E3 Inspire, an organization using emotional intelligence to transform the impacts of trauma in the workplace. “It’s great if it’s there, but if nobody knows how to use it … it’s irrelevant.”

Since the EAP is typically shared during the onboarding process — a small detail tucked in with a bevy of information — when an employee finds themselves in need of support, they’re unlikely to remember that resource is available.

De la Rosa, whose program works in conjunction with EAPs, recommends employers hold quarterly lunch and learn sessions to revisit the benefits of the EAP. Creating wellness-based initiatives like weekly emails with short articles on wellbeing is another practical way for employers to show they care.

De la Rosa echoes Imilkowski’s sentiment that leaders set the precedent for wellbeing. Mindfulness about body language, communication style and “listening for understanding rather than listening for correction” can have a big impact.

Shortening meetings to 45 minutes and giving those 15 minutes back to employees for movement, standing in the entryway rather than hovering over someone at their desk when requesting updates on a project, asking “How’s home life?” instead of the general “How are you?” are all ways to foster a more supportive environment.

Both Imilkowski and de la Rosa believe the workplace culture in Madison is starting to shift to include mental health and wellbeing, but the pace needs acceleration, especially given the current job market. For companies that want to build productivity and longevity and compete in the marketplace, it’s a necessity.

“I think a lot of employers are still stuck in this idea of bottom line and productivity, and that employees are being done a favor with their employment,” says Imilkowski. “What a lot of executives and strategic leaders don’t understand — and sometimes they try but they’re in much more privileged positions — is the people that are on the ground doing the work are the ones making the company run. If all of those people disappeared tomorrow, there would be no company. [Employers should] honor that it’s a privilege to have them there, and [think about], ‘how can we serve employees?’ instead of, ‘what is the bare minimum we have to do to keep people here?’”

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