By Sabrina Uva - 18th February, 2022
Mental health and wellness is the core of our lives and should be at the core of our next-gen workplace strategy. On February 4, Melissa Marsh, founder and executive director of PLASTARC, and PLASTARC sociospacial designer, Amy Rosen, discussed Mental Health at the IFMA weekly Mosh Pit.
PLASTARC aims to make the world a better place, one workplace at a time. Marsh and Rosen have both studied architecture, in addition to researching how people experience the workplace and the role that a physical environment may play in managing mental health.
Rosen emphasizes that it’s important to understand the difference between mental health and mental illness. “The conditions labeled as mental illness occur in the mainstream of life. Every living person is vulnerable, no exceptions,” they said.
Mental illness indicates a deviation from “standard” brain function. It is typically a chronic disease with biological roots that may be triggered by certain socio-environmental factors. But mental illness can usually be managed, and managing it is key to quality of life and workplace success. A person’s environment can play a large role in determining how mental illness may affect them.
Mental health is a more general term, related to a person’s psychological well-being, including their emotional and social well-being. Mental health is the combination of how we think, feel, and act throughout our daily lives. Our social and physical environments can be either risk factors or safeguards to mental health.
Stress in the workplace—which includes fear of loss or of negative reactions from colleagues, frustration, anxiety over neurodiversity or social class status, deadlines, expectations, general treatment from colleagues, lack of power, etc.—can endanger mental health. For workforces to manage and dismantle sources of stress, attitudes and behaviors from the managerial and executive side of businesses must change. We must be more cognizant of how we treat others and the role our actions can play in fostering or threatening mental health.
According to Marsh, culture is “the sum of all micro-interactions that can be viewed as a larger picture or as individual interactions we have in the workplace,” and culture is contagious. When a workplace focuses on improving mental health across the board and supporting those with mental disorders, it will result in an improved workplace culture, less employee absenteeism, increased productivity and economic gains.
An organizational structure that fosters mentorship and effective communication for current and future employees helps everyone feel more secure and understand where they fit in an organization. These kinds of policies should be implemented full-time and not just during times of increased strain on mental health, such as the COVID pandemic.
Future generations—Gen Z and Gen Alpha—that will be entering the workforce will have less in-person social interactions than previous generations. A 2019 survey conducted by Washington University determined that these diminished social interactions have potential negative impacts. This study found that Gen Z adults report the highest figures for loneliness, which was a major factor in the dropout and transfer rates amongst schools. Social isolation was an issue pre-pandemic and has only become more relevant, correlating with increased rates of depression, suicide, and self-harming among young adults during the pandemic.
Generation Alpha is affected by the same mental health issues as Gen Z, but is growing up in both a pandemic and a recession. Alpha and Z will have to adapt to an epidemic of worsening mental health, a switch to remote work, a technological revolution, and an overwhelming anxiety about the environment and climate change. With all the stressors these generations face, potential workplace burnout could be a huge issue. These generations need to feel empowered to help shape the future. A focus on sustainability and creating a cleaner world has helped start the conversation around the climate change anxiety.
PLASTARC conducted a survey to see how comfortable people are talking to work leadership about their mental health. About 50 percent of respondents said that they don't feel comfortable speaking about mental health, nor do they know whom they can speak to about it. Strong employee mental health should be understood by workplace leadership as an important asset that warrants cultivation. When it is not addressed, there is increased possibility for a phenomenon we are seeing today, a “great resignation.”
Financial investment in mental health research and services pays off, in the rawest terms of bottom line. For every dollar towards treating depression and anxiety, our economy can expect to see a return of four dollars on improved productivity, according to the World Health Organization.
When company leaders admit their vulnerabilities and mistakes, there are positive, rippling effects. It’s important that people understand that they are not alone in their mental health battle, and we can create opportunities and mechanisms to ensure that everyone has a voice. PLASTARC advises a three-prong approach: protecting against work-related risk factors, promoting mental health by developing positive work culture that focuses on employee strengths, and directly addressing mental health in the workplace. To attain these goals, we all need to act more compassionately, inclusively, and deliberately.
Workers, and particularly young workers, want to be seen as cognitively-diverse humans first. A workplace culture that encourages growth from failure and mistakes can help prevent spiraling and poor mental health outcomes. Changes need to happen systemically, at the corporate policy level, as well as individually, in terms of management style and leadership communication, to enhance psychological safety.
Other resources on workplace mental health include: