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Mental Health in the Workplace

Updated: Sep 16, 2023

£118 billion pounds.

This is the annual financial impact of Mental Health issues on the UK economy according to findings shared earlier this year by London School of Economics. With this in mind, it’s little wonder that companies like NatWest, PlayTech and Deloitte’s are taking a proactive stance to Mental Health and incorporating opportunities to cultivate mental well-being during working hours.

Don’t worry, though. What follows won’t be an(other) Ode to Mindfulness and Meditation claiming these strategies are the panacea for all Mental Health issues in the workplace (even though I do love and advocate for these approaches). I won’t be telling you to take a deep breath before we begin and I certainly won’t be telling you to take up Yoga - not today, anyway.

Instead, we will begin our discussion of Mental Health by getting out of the mind (gasp) and delving into the body. We shall examine Mental Health in the workplace through the lens of nervous system regulation and dysregulation.

Wait. Why are we talking about the nervous system?

Based on my training in Neuroscience, Psychosensory Therapies and Somatic Coaching, I can tell you that nervous system dysregulation is at the root of almost every issue concerning mental or emotional well-being including anxiety, depression and stress-related conditions.

UK government statistics for 2020/21 suggest that anxiety and depression account for 50% of all work-related ill-health cases and a staggering 90% of employees have reported workplace stress. In light of this, equipping employees with the ability to self-regulate i.e. providing them with the tools to flip the switch of their nervous system from a dysregulated state to that of optimum functioning is nothing short of a game-changer.

Dysregulation, dysregulation, dysregulation

When we’re dysregulated, the body goes into survival mode and releases a cascade of stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. One of two nervous system responses are then triggered as a result:

  1. fight or flight mode where we can become angry, anxious or feel irritated or

  2. freeze mode where we go into a state of shutting down and we feel numb or spaced out

Regardless which of these responses are triggered, the body will go on to shut down any functions that are not absolutely necessary for survival. This has a direct effect on the brain centres connected to rational thinking, learning, empathy and creativity as well as the centres connected to memory. So we can see very quickly how being in a dysregulated state impacts not only on productivity and on the quality of work output but on the capacity for innovation and the ability to connect meaningfully with others.

Emotional contagion

Our emotional and mental states are contagious. Just as a smile and some friendly banter from a sunny employee can create pockets of connection, stress, or nervous system dysregualtion, also leaks. Via the process of cardioelectromagnetic communication, the stressed employee becomes an emotional whirlpool of sorts, pulling others into their eddies of impatience, restlessness, resentment, complaining and hostility.

You don’t want that for your organisation.

The more people get sucked in, the easier it is for the shared mood of these individuals to set the tone of the culture. You want to nip that in the bud. Left unchecked, this can manifest as interpersonal conflict, interdepartmental conflict and even absenteeism.

Safety First

At the risk of stating the obvious, a vital aspect of well-being relies on meeting people’s most fundamental, basic, primal human need: safety. Allow me to illustrate the point anecdotally.

On one occasion, I was asked to deliver the same workshop, back-to-back, to two different groups. The first exuded an air of open-mindedness throughout; evidenced by their free-flowing movements and their curiosity during the session. They left amid a buzz of excitement, discussing possibilities for integrating what they had learnt.

What occurred with the second group couldn’t have been more different. During the exercises, there was a stony silence; the participants’ bodies frozen, contracted. The resistance in the room was palpable. At the end of the session, after everyone else had left, a small group approached me. “It wasn’t you. And it wasn’t the exercises.” In the conversation that ensued they shared that the group would have had misgivings about opening up because of issues with members of senior management who had been present. The staff didn’t trust them and they feared being judged, so they froze. Because their nervous systems were dysregulated throughout the session, the intervention was pretty pointless.

Moral of the story: if you want Mental Wellness to ‘stick’ psychological safety is paramount.

Beyond Psychological Safety

Organisations that have integrated self-regulation techniques into the fabric of their day-to-day operations have reported a positive impact on employees’ performance, on their self-esteem and resilience as well as a greater ability to resolve situations of conflict.

Moreover, there is an added benefit. This type of work provides people with the opportunity to understand the body’s feedback in a new way and to understand themselves and others with greater compassion. Instead of seeing the challenging experience as an intrinsic part of their identity, for example: ‘I’m anxious; I’m depressed’ - they’re able to shift into the understanding that the sensations arising in the body are simply giving them feedback about the level of activation of their nervous system, thus reducing stigma.

In this way, rather than judging the experience and thinking there’s something wrong with them or with someone else, they can get curious about the sensations that come up, safe in the knowledge that they are equipped with the tools to come back into a state of balance.

Steps to Mental, Emotional and Psychological Wellness

  1. The single most important and foundational step an organisation can take to foster Mental Wellness is to create a culture of trust free from the fear of conflict and judgement.

  2. Reduce everyday stress by ensuring employees have access to the appropriate resources to carry out their roles/tasks efficiently (sounds obvious but it isn’t always the case) and

  3. Provide realistic timelines for completion.

  4. Go beyond mainstream Psychoeducation and invest in a qualified coach/facilitator to deliver effective, practical, evidence-based strategies to teach employees how to work with their nervous systems by 1. teaching them to self-regulate and 2. teaching them how to increase resilience.

  5. Demonstrate a long-term commitment to cultivating Mental Wellness. Many of the issues relating to Mental Health are systemic in nature. Because they won’t be going away any time soon, a long-term approach is best.

My hope is that, sooner rather than later, we will be leveraging these formidable tools and techniques based on cutting-edge Neuroscience to empower employees at all levels to actively manage their state of being and, in doing so, to generate greater optimism, fulfilment and vitality in the workplace.

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