Improving Mental Health in the Workplace

May 23, 2016 8:00 AM

Decreasing stress — and seeking professional assistance when needed — can help combat mental illness on the job.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 Americans live with a mental health condition. Just like physical illnesses, mental health conditions do not have an on-and-off switch, meaning Americans take their problems to the office every day.

For May’s Mental Health Month, we are addressing common issues that Americans deal with and identifying possible solutions to these issues. This week, we sat down with Michelle Riba, M.D., University of Michigan professor of psychiatry and associate director of the U-M Depression Center, to discuss mental health in the workplace — for those with diagnosed mental health conditions, and individuals just trying to reduce stress.

"Sometimes things that seem minor are major in certain ways."
Michelle Riba, M.D.

What is most important in terms of mental health and the workplace?

Riba: The first thing to think about is prevention. It is most important for an individual to learn about ways to take care of themselves. Individuals should focus on being physically active, eating well and sleeping well.

We now understand more about the relationship between physical health and mental health. Physical health can improve your mental health. Participation in sports can be meditative (especially if they take place in nature). Participating in team-based sports fosters a positive sense of community.

Also, when one is trying to be physically fit, individuals typically don’t want to use substances or eat poorly. This is a positive side effect of being physically active. There is also a spill-off onto significant others and children. If a husband sees his spouse exercising daily, he may be motivated to do the same. Exercise can be a family activity — it is very important.

How can you decrease stress in the workplace?

Riba: In the workplace, stress can contribute to being mentally unwell

If you have a very stressful job, or even if you don’t, it is a good idea to organize a walking group at lunch. Taking a walk in nature with colleagues can be very beneficial to one’s health. If you attend work-related parties, consider contributing healthy alternatives to the sweet treats typically offered. You can be healthy individually and also in a group setting.

How do you know when the stress has become too much to handle on your own?

Riba: If an individual starts feeling depressed, the first thing to do is speak with their primary care provider about these concerns. They can also seek out the employee assistance program. There should be no stigma in the workplace toward help-seeking.

People should regularly evaluate themselves and identify what coping skills to employ. It is a good idea to take stock of your physical and mental health and identify areas for improvement. Ask yourself if you are in a stressful situation at home and say no to doing certain things that add or contribute to stress. Ask others in the home or outside of the home to help chip in. Sometimes things that seem minor are major in certain ways. For example, making dinner every night for your family can become overwhelming. Think about whether you can handle the stress independently, or if you should ask for some help.

What are some other positive changes individuals can make?

Riba: Some people have poor coping skills. Adverse activities for your mental health include watching too much television, constantly being on social media and not communicating with others.

Try turning off the TV after work, enjoy meals as a family and talk to your colleagues. Meditation is helpful. Yoga, tai chi or massage therapy can be helpful for the right person. Try learning something new or take a class. Volunteering is another good way to get out of oneself. Many workplaces today offer free days for volunteering in your community. Check with your HR manager about this policy.

How will you know when it is time to get professional help?

Riba: If you have experienced a change in mood for two weeks or more, you should speak with your primary care physician, a psychiatrist or another mental health professional.

Symptoms to look out for are low mood, low energy, crying, change in sleep patterns or a change in desire to do any activities at all. If you regularly attend a house of worship and then stop wanting to go, there is likely a problem. If you are feeling hopeless or suicidal, it is time to get professional help. For children and adolescents symptoms may differ: They may perform poorly in school, sleep more or lose interest in normal activities.

When is the right time to bring up mental health concerns with your supervisor?

Riba: Disclosing a mental health condition is no different than disclosing any other medical condition. It depends on the purpose of the disclosure. Think about why you want to disclose your personal information. Share it on a need-to-know basis. Like any medical information, it is up to you about whether you want to be confidential. You might need to ask for time off, and you will need to share this with your manager. Sometimes you need to disclose because hospitalization is required.

How can American workplaces be healthier?

Riba: It takes leadership. It takes leaders to realize a healthier company is better for the business and the product. A healthy work environment adds to the value of the company and the product. Individuals in leadership roles should consider adopting programs that are healthy for the company. This includes considering culturally sensitive programs.

Some leaders need education, and some organizations need increased resources. Managers should appreciate that members of their staff may lead complicated lives. If the organization is such that people feel they can talk to each other, and feel empowered to suggest changes, that is a good sign. Every organization can be improved upon — there is no limit. We can all contribute to making our workspace better.