Graham Bird, Director of Where Workplace Works, explains how the workplace can play a part in alleviating mental health issues…
It’s reached that time, when the days are short and dark, the bills from the Christmas season have mounted and the weather is constantly grey and wet. In fact, today is considered to be the most depressing day of the year- and consequently is now widely known as ‘Blue Monday’.
However, it’s important to remember, that for many, it’s not just this time of year that is a challenge to mental health. In a recent nationwide survey, it was discovered that around two thirds of people (64%) have poor or below average mental wellbeing. In another study it was also estimated that around 300,000 jobs are lost every year due to mental illness.
So, how can this be alleviated? And not just on the third Monday of every January- but all year round? How can we create an environment that works to support staff that struggle with mental health- and aid those who are prone to experiencing workplace stress and burnout?
Well, here are a few ideas….
Improving mind and body
There is an abundance of research to show that exercise is an effective treatment for depression- and there are also a multitude of ways you can encourage exercise in the workplace. Firstly, a flexible approach to working may mean staff members can exercise frequently in their own time- and you can encourage this further by providing (or part funding) an employee gym membership. Allowing employees to exercise in the day makes it easier for them to find time to do it, and therefore helps them to strike a better work/life balance.
Alternatively, businesses can find a moment in the day, whether it’s early morning or even within a lunch break, when staff can assemble to exercise. This may be in an unused meeting room or even outdoors, (weather permitting). You may have a staff member that is a budding Pilates instructor- or someone who can lead a boxercise or yoga class, but if instructors aren’t available, a simple workout DVD, Phone app or YouTube video will suffice. Some organisations set up five-a-side football ‘lunchtime leagues’, or running events, that different departments can compete in – which can easily be arranged in near-by public parks or green spaces.
Meditation is a good way to reenergise and relax. A short 10-20 minute session, three times a week, will have a noticeable impact on stress, anxiety or depression. All that is needed is a quiet, private space.
Meetings on the move
Where Workplace Works has long been an advocate of stand up and walking meetings. Replacing sedentary gatherings with a rejuvenating stroll, in a local park, around the perimeter or a building or to and from a café for coffees is a great way to exercise and get fresh air. Such meetings have also been found to boost creativity!
Let there be light
Natural light in the office can have a huge impact on our health, wellbeing and mood, it can also reduce headaches, eyestrain and drowsiness. If your office doesn’t do it’s best to optimise the natural light, maybe it’s time to rearrange it so it does?
Start by moving anything that obscures the light and prevents it from reaching staff members. It’s also a good idea to use glass partitions instead of walls to allow the natural light to permeate the office.
According to research, commissioned by The Weather Channel and YouGov, Seasonal Affective Disorder affects 29% or nearly one in three of adults. SAD is a form of depression that is experienced due to a lack of sunshine in winter months, which affects a part of the brain known as the hypothalamus. The lack of sunlight can reduce serotonin levels resulting in feelings of depression.
If you are aware of any staff members that suffer from SAD then make the workstations exposed to the most natural light available to them first. You could even look at light boxes for these staff members that emit high intensity light. These can be used early in the morning for 30 minutes. The light stimulates the area of the brain which controls mood, through the retinas. These lights can easily fit on a desk and retail for as little as £50.00.
Getting that natural light at breaktime is also essential, so encourage staff by arranging lunchtime excursions by foot- or create an outdoor environment or garden that allows staff to spend time outdoors on their breaks.
Encouraging conversation, interaction and support
Communication can be a great remedy for mental health issues and creating social environments and activities within them that support this, will certainly improve interaction. Try developing shared social areas such as kitchen style spaces, break-out environments, informal meeting spaces, or areas that promote fun and relaxation. All will encourage a more cohesive and communicative workforce. Also- you could make breaks compulsory. This will not only improve wellbeing, communication and interaction, it will also mean that the breakout spaces you provide are actually used- as people will leave their desks if breaks are enforced.
Create an open environment and a companywide awareness of mental health issues, where staff feel comfortable talking about wellbeing, stress, depression or anxiety. That way, those suffering can disclose any problems, should they wish to, in the knowledge that they will be fully supported by colleagues and the company itself.
Get flexible and lose the commute
In a poll of 1,500 people, 55% said they felt that their commute was causing them stress.
Offering staff more flexibility in terms of start and stop times, will certainly give them the freedom and control they may lack in their lives. It will also provide them with the opportunity to start early and leave work with some of the day left – so they can enjoy their lives, hobbies and time with their families.
You could also help boot the commute by encouraging alternative methods of getting to work, by providing a secure bike shed and introducing the ‘cycle to work’ scheme, which is a popular employee benefit, and provides excellent tax savings on bikes and equipment.
Create a calm space
A busy, loud, open plan office may not be the best environment for someone prone to stress, depression or anxiety. Providing an environment that allows for staff to escape those conditions will certainly lower stress and anxiety levels and offer a place for solitude if required. Creating such a space can also be used as an environment for quiet or contemplative tasks for all staff members.
Consider colours and contrasts, lighting, furniture and comfort in this space and make sure its location is away from any noise, human traffic or distraction. Green has been proven to lower stress and is a mood enhancing colour. Try a living wall and various plants which will absorb sound and reduce stress which are also aesthetically pleasing. You could even add a water feature, which would provide soothing sounds, that could be placed in an area that promotes calmness. These also improve the quality of air!
Another calming and energising environment may be the area you have outside of the office. With some basic gardening and outdoor seating, you could encourage staff to move to access the fresh air, and natural light. This space would also provide a perfect setting for outdoor meetings.
So, to sum up, mental health issues affect one in three of us, so there will almost certainly be members of your team that will benefit from the changes you make. By making a few alterations, the workplace can better support workers with mental health issues. Whether you start small- or make a big change- each step will have a positive impact and certainly be of great benefit to your businesses most important asset – it’s people.