New Stressors Highlight Importance of Mental Health in the Workplace

Experts are seeing troubling trends in the professional setting.

Kevin Keeler hears it.

Whether facilitating support groups, answering crisis phone calls or just talking to people one on one, the president of Lansing’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness is seeing a troubling trend for offices, workshops and sales floors.

“The workplace has become a lot more stress-inducing. And not just the workplace, but the whole environment because of COVID and the political situation,” Keeler said. “So, what we are seeing is that there are more people that are experiencing distress, and sometimes that’s mental illness and sometimes it’s not being able to effectively work with stress.”

The numbers back up Keeler’s perspective. Mental Health America’s 2021 “Mind the Workplace” report, based on a survey of 5,030 employees over 17 industries in 2020, found that:

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  • 80% of workers say they were emotionally drained from their work, which is an early sign of burnout.
  • 3 in 5 employees weren’t getting the support they needed to manage their stress.
  • Only 5% of employees said their workplaces were safe places for workers with mental illnesses.
  • 56% of workers were looking for new jobs, up from 40% in 2018.

That impacts more than just the wellness of workers; it can negatively affect the bottom line.

“Job satisfaction and levels of productivity depend on workplace culture, work demands, work support and work rewards,” according to the report. “Simultaneously, an organization relies on a productive and engaged workforce to remain competitive and meet external demands.”

The coronavirus pandemic made it that much worse. Those remaining in physical workplaces had new worries: risks of serious illness or death, social distancing, confrontational customers and more. Those allowed to work from home saw new stresses emerge.

“As far as individuals themselves, with the pandemic, the things we do for burnout have been taken away from us. Things like speaking with people around you, setting up good workplace boundaries, engaging in exercise,” said Dr. Andrew New, an attending psychiatrist at Henry Ford Allegiance Health in Jackson. “With regards to talking it out, during the pandemic unfortunately a lot of people weren’t able to interact with the normal social groups and dynamics that normally would help them significantly.

“When it came to the workplace boundaries, all of the sudden we’re working at home and those lines got extremely blurred, so that also exacerbated the situation. And all of the gyms got closed, so you were having a hard time exercising,” New added. “That’s kind of created this kind of perfect storm that can really exacerbate the burnout people feel.”

Is it that people are having more difficulty coping with stress, or is it that the workplace is getting more difficult?

“I think it’s probably a little bit of both,” said Margaret Keeler, a NAMI Lansing board member, and Kevin Keeler’s spouse. “With the pandemic and with so much going on in the world, we are facing polarization and lack of connectedness with neighbors, friends and coworkers. We don’t have the normal collaborations and problem-solving processes that we have had when we work close together. Humans are social beings.”

Yes, individuals must safeguard their mental wellness, but employers must be aware of the environments they create, by intention or absence.

“A lot of it needs to start with management, and their appreciation and realization of what burnout does to the American workforce,” said New. “So much money is lost each year to employees just suffering from burnout with reduced work efficiency.”

For employers, saying you have an open-door policy isn’t enough. They must engage their employees and get a sense of what they’re not saying.

“It can be hard to recognize sometimes. There’s a lot of people trying to hide their emotional state and just appear that they’re functioning top-notch because they don’t want to be regarded as not performing because of a mental illness or because of burnout or stress,” New said. “So, I think managers need to be open and ask about those things and provide a space where people can respond that’s not considered negative or would be looked down upon. You need to be a little bit more proactive about it.”

As far as employees go, they can access mental wellness resources like Jackson’s Henry Ford Allegiance Access Center, where social workers can guide you to the appropriate aid; or NAMI Lansing, which offers public support groups. You can ask your primary care physician for direction, and community organizations like churches and clubs can offer an empathetic ear that can help.

“If we have a purpose and meaning into our life, we have a lot more ability to push through stressors and to wade through the difficult times,” New said. “We’ve got to find that for ourselves.”

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