Although it is well understood that mental health issues are one of the leading causes of lost productivity, we still face a collective barrier that prevents from fully activating our “caring instinct” at work. We accept superficial personal relationships in the workplace as the norm, while at the same time looking to our jobs as a significant source of meaning and connection in our lives.
While organizational efforts to reduce stigma and support mental health needs are noble, we must remember that a workplace is ultimately made up of human beings who share a desire to be cared for by others. Small shifts in the way we communicate at work can help deepen the important personal relationships that support our emotional health in and out of the office.
Visit any organization and ask someone, “How are you?” and you will likely get an answer that is a variation of the following: “Hanging in there. Here we are again for another week” or “This week is dragging by, can’t wait for the weekend.”
Finally, Friday arrives, the day when colleagues say the two magic words: “Happy Friday!”
This simple, widely-recognized pattern demonstrates two fundamental problems with common workplace interaction that have a profound impact on our collective mental health as individuals, and as a society.
- Acceptance of superficial relationships as the workplace norm
Although people are having more productive conversations at work, the amount of meaningful workplace relationships has progressively declined since the 1980s. Meanwhile, research shows that one of the most important factors for a happy working life is having friends at work with whom we can have valuable conversations beyond the tasks at hand.
A Gallup study found that people who reported having a “best friend” at work were also 21% more likely to report that they have an opportunity to do what they do best every day. Research also shows that workplace teams are more productive when they are comprised of individuals that consider each other friends.
In 2016, a professional services leader launched a mental health program, titled “r u ok?,” in which employees were encouraged to sincerely ask and answer that one simple question. The purpose of the program was to end the stigma around mental health and to ensure people feel comfortable reaching out to company resources and to one another for support. The results were positive, with employees expressing how the program made them feel cared-for and supported. The program’s effectiveness was driven by the fact that employees were encouraged to ask a personal question and receive an authentic answer.
Companies do not, however, need to facilitate workshops or events to increase the number of genuine workplace relationships. Anyone, at any level of an organization, can try this at work today. Genuinely ask someone about their well-being, listen carefully and respond in a way that shows compassion.
- Acceptance that the act of working is a barrier, and not a conduit, to good mental health
The collective act of counting down to Friday implies that the goal of mental health is placed on pause until the weekend. But is this the way it must be? What is stopping us from having a Happy Monday?
The answer to this question is the fundamental human longing for meaningful work and a fulfilling life. When we believe that our work has meaning and value, our mental well-being improves along with our productivity and job satisfaction. Conversely, when our environment is not conducive to our well-being, we have two options: find a new environment, or evolve together to create a more optimal state.
People regularly pursue the first option. In fact, 70% of Americans who are currently employed are searching for other jobs. When for so many finding a new work environment sounds appealing, it indicates that a high percentage of the population feels unsettled. Like any relationships, workplace relationships provide meaning and purpose. High-quality relationships breed productivity and job satisfaction, which correlate with lower rates of depression, anxiety and stress.
As more organizations begin to emphasize the importance of good mental health, it is important that employees are encouraged and empowered to check in with each other. A small shift in the status quo can allow work to better serve our mental well-being and eventually, perhaps, make “Happy Monday” a more common way to greet our colleagues.