Addressing the mental fitness journey in the workplace

Here is how to prioritise employee wellbeing and mental health

Whether or not you exercise regularly, you probably know that you should – that physical fitness supports your overall health, that it will extend your life, and that it will give you more energy. The same is true of mental fitness, but in general, people do not have the same level of awareness of its importance. We can’t thrive physically without a fit mind. Implementing a mental fitness practice is key to taking care of the whole person.

Mental Fitness is the proactive practice of building our psychological resilience and emotional wellbeing to both help us bounce back from challenges and achieve our potential. Psychological wellbeing is too often something we don’t attend to until it’s broken – we are depressed, anxious, or burned out. Instead, by taking a preventive approach, we can build our psychological core just as we would our physical core to put us in a position of mental strength.

Starting to work on our mental fitness can be as simple as committing to a mindfulness practice, practising gratitude each morning, journaling, or opening up about what’s on your mind to a close friend or mentor.

Creating space for Mental Fitness in the workplace lets us build skills to navigate challenging situations in our personal and professional life. During times of uncertainty, teams are more prepared with positive emotions, mental strength, better stress management, agility, and resilience. 

The business cost of poor mental fitness

Poor mental fitness comes at a personal cost; it also comes at a professional and even an organisational cost. Research from Health and Safety Executive, for example, found that in 2020 and 2021, work-related stress, depression and anxiety accounted for 50% of sick days.

Burnout plagues large swathes of the employee population too, resulting in disengagement from work, turnover, and missed days. These challenges have only been exacerbated by the pandemic, with the sudden shift to remote work leading employees to experience dips in wellbeing and behavioural outcomes and be greatly affected by workplace stressors. 

All of which costs businesses a great deal. Earlier this year, the ‘Great Resignation’ threatened the ability of many businesses to run at full capacity as thousands of employees sought to leave their roles. Mental health was a driving force behind this migration: 65% of those who left or planned to leave their jobs cited mental health as the reason, suggesting increased stress, burnout and job insecurity as the catalysts. One study estimated that poor mental health cost UK employers a whopping £56 billion in 2020-21, up from just £45 billion in 2019. 

For all of these reasons, support for mental fitness needs to be a strategic priority for organisations. Mental fitness fosters productivity, retention and overall business success.

Creating space for the work of  mental fitness

Most businesses have not yet figured out how to do this. Our own study of 2000 UK business leaders showed that many were struggling to focus and strategically plan for the business.

We also found that over the course of just three months, earlier this year 2022, 7 in 10 UK employees had pushed through a mental health struggle to avoid taking time off work; and 55% of UK workers took at least one mental health day during this time, but provided an alternative reason for doing so. These workers hesitated to share their emotional wellbeing needs with their employers. 

Managers need to create space and encourage employees to feel comfortable prioritising their mental health. They need the support of their organisations to have access to services that can help them achieve optimal mental fitness.

Prioritising mental fitness at the management level can have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the team. Employers who take steps to continually improve their own mental fitness journey, resilience and productivity are in a better position to influence change across the company. Team leaders who feel empowered to lead by example can actively create an environment of open communication and provide resources which support mental fitness practices across teams.

Providing personalised support

Every mental fitness journey is specific to each individual, and ongoing support should accommodate each employee’s specific needs and overarching goals. Coaching can be one way of achieving this. While coaching can have various benefits for those in leadership roles, it can also help employees at the team level to raise productivity and self-awareness and engage better with career goals and progression.

Our recent study, published in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring, demonstrates compellingly the power of coaching to shore up mental fitness to help employees weather challenge. The study spanned 1,005 people over two points in March 2020 to understand how coaching impacted individuals’ ability to cope with unexpected and stressful situations.

The coached cohort not only experienced more positive outcomes than the uncoached individuals, but it was also by a large margin: Coached individuals had a 129% productivity advantage, experienced 2.3X more social connection with their peers, and were 4X more resilient than those who did not receive coaching. By contrast, uncoached workers experienced declines in life satisfaction, optimism, productivity, and more. 

The study demonstrates how effective coaching can be as a preventive approach to mental wellbeing. If we build up our mental fitness in advance, we will be able to soar through challenge and help others do the same. 

There are other ways for employers to show support for mental fitness. Mental health days, access to therapy, generous vacation time, and modelling of mental fitness practices by senior leadership are great ways to empower the workforce and give them room to take care of themselves.

BetterUp research found that workers who strongly agree that their employer cares about them have a 47% lower intention to leave their jobs compared to those who disagree. By continuing to recognise mental fitness as a daily commitment and subsequently creating space for employees to be their best selves, organisations can adequately prepare their staff to not just survive the challenges of today’s world of work, but to thrive through it.

By Dr Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, Chief Product Officer at BetterUp

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