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It’s a New Era for Mental Health, Wellbeing at Work

Today’s post comes to us from one of our newest board members: author, journalist, and speaker, Ivonne Vargas Hernández, and it’s part one in a two-part series.

Anxiety, gastric ailments associated to stress, and work isolation — among others — are not new issues within the work environment. But the COVID-19 pandemic has given them a special underlining.

Before COVID-19, the World Health Organization (WHO) already considered that 75% of the workforce in México, for instance, suffered from stress. After 18 months of the pandemic, reality hasn’t changed and mental health problems within the workforce have worsened due to issues such as loss of employment, extended work hours, or work overload.

Whether for lack of health or employment, the pandemic and its effects in work and personal lives shot México to first place among the members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for having the highest levels of anxiety.

With symptoms such as depression, the outlook is similar to that of anxiety. Before the pandemic, this ailment affected 3% of the Mexican population. The pandemic raised the number to 27%, therefore moving México from 13th to third among those economies that make up the OECD ranking — the highest increase within the group.

Although employers all over the world have responded with initiatives such as mental health days or weeks, two- or three-day workweeks, and enhanced counseling benefits or access to therapy apps, it’s still not enough. There are also, in some ways, doubts toward the profitability in this matter or the uncertainty of what to expect from the implementation of a wellness program.

But institutions such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have documented that the companies that invest in knowing the emotional needs of their employees, as part of an emotional and physical wellness strategy, achieve twice the innovation and increase their yearly earnings by 25%.

While it is true that not all leaders are (or have to be) corporate wellness experts, it is also important not to ignore the impact on workers’ health. Employee wellness was vital (and challenging) before the pandemic, and now it is even more critical.

In México, 45% of the population has bad quality of sleep and 5% of adults suffer from insomnia, according to Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (the oldest in the country), with research collected by the psychology department from the beginning of the pandemic.

If companies provide employees with the tools that enable them to disconnect, especially when working remotely, it stands to improve the overall working environment, positively impact retention, increase productivity, and even lower healthcare expenses for the company.

The Positive Psychology Approach to Employee Mental Health

Another possible approach to improving employee wellbeing comes from positive psychology, a discipline focused on the scientific study of wellness, which posits the importance of making changes in daily events that generate anxiety for employees, such as the way leaders provide feedback.

According to Gallup research on employee burnout, employees who agree with their performance metrics are 55% less likely to suffer exhaustion. Leadership styles that can cause employee burnout tend to focus on negative feedback (e.g., what needs to be fixed). This way of acting, in terms of emotional studies, implies centering only on the past. Instead, leaders should focus on what employees do well and identify opportunities for improvement.

Also, moving away from a micromanagement leadership style to achieve results can help build employee confidence. Far from making workers sick, it can improve employee wellness by empowering them to make informed decisions based on the skills and expertise they have developed throughout their careers and lives. That is one of the many lessons I learned while achieving my master’s in positive psychology at Tecnológico de Monterrey in México.

Meaningful change starts with providing all people — regardless of their profession — with the tools to exploits their strengths. Over the past few years, before and during the pandemic, several companies in México have incorporated actions to increase employee health and wellness.

Later this week, I’ll share some standout examples.

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