Mental Wellness Podcast

This episode of Workplace Matters centers around facing stress and adversity in more productive ways and how to support workforces, both on-site and remote to be more resilient. A system of support for employees give them the ability to better cope with negative experiences when they arise. But what is the best way to go about that and how can you tell when employees are in need of help?

We once again talked with Dr. Saba Ali from the University of Iowa College of Education about how employers can best support their employees as we transition into the winter months.

Michael: You’re listening to Workplace Matters. With more workers feeling stress, anxiety, and depression, the need is higher than ever for mental resilience. It is incumbent on employers to be aware of stress on their employees and support them through this time.


Saba: Resilience is really the ability to bounce back from negative experiences.

Michael: We once again talked with Dr. Saba Ali from the University of Iowa about what employers can do to support the mental wellness of their employees.

Saba: I think there’s this myth out there that resilience is the idea that nothing bothers you. But actually what it is, is really the ability to cope with negative or traumatic experiences. And it’s really important for mental health because it is kind of the process of the ways that people cope. You know higher resilience that allows people to ask for support. For resources that they need. And when people do that and they get stronger social connections with each other, they’re able to really kind of cope with negative experiences. And that’s a really important part of mental health. Mental health is not just feeling joy or happiness all the time. It’s when you do feel or experience negative things that you can cope with those negative experiences.

Michael: Obviously this continues to be one of the most stressful times for workers throughout out the country both in and outside of the workplace. That is why workplaces need to be focusing on sustained mental wellness in order to prevent burnout as we transition into the winter months. Employers can positively impact the resilience of their workforces by being dedicated to employee support.

Saba: So, I think that probably the biggest thing that employers can do right now is to provide support and that’s really coming out in the data that we see on resilience. The more support people have, the more sense of belonging that they feel, the more they feel like they can talk about what’s going on for them or get the resources that they need, the higher generally their resilience. One thing we see is that when supervisors are willing to listen to their workers about what they’re experiencing, maybe even role model kind of opening up themselves and encouraging work life balance usually tends to bolster resilience. I think that’s a really, really important thing.

Michael: There are many ways to show support to employees, and it is valuable to have a varied approach when thinking about the best way to do so. Like most workplace issues, there isn’t one solution which fixes everything and variety of strategies creates a better support system.

Saba: Things like flexibility in working hours, good communication, reaching out to tell workers that they’re appreciated. I think about service workers who try to enforce maybe mask mandates or things like that. Showing that you support what they’re doing. Most workers are reporting that when they feel like their supervisors, care about them, and they back it up with sort of policies around flexibility and understanding and then also helping people to get resources when they are struggling. But that tends to be the kind of support people are looking for.

Michael: When employees feel that their workplace cares about them, it increases the resilience in the workforce. This usually centers around communication and flexibility with workers. For example, if deadlines can be made more flexible that eases the workers stress of making those deadlines and shows organizational support for employee wellbeing. There are even trainings to teach resilience available for workplaces that seek them out.

Saba: There are some resilience trainings out there. They tend to kind of cover sort of mindfulness approaches. So how do you take a break? How do you focus on your breathing? You know, especially when you’re experiencing a lot of stress. They focus on sort of like how do you connect to the networks that you need to connect to? I think that there are a lot of skill building kinds of things around mindfulness, making sure you feel connected. How do you set appropriate sort of goals for yourself? So you’re not completely feeling overwhelmed by work. When we look at different types of work, when we get sort of nit-picky about it, you know, obviously there are some people who maybe have more resilience to begin with who go into working in an E.R., dealing with trauma all the time. They may already have higher levels of optimism or higher levels of resilience. I think it’s really important to help them still keep building those skills and feeling supported, to continue to feel resilient and to prevent burnout.

Michael: The needs of a remote worker could be vastly different from the needs of an on-site worker, likewise the needs of an employee of color could be different from the needs of a white employee. It’s important to try and understand employee needs on an individual level to really tailor the support in the most effective way.

Saba: Remote workers are experiencing this idea of living at work versus working from home. Never being able to escape their workplace. I know for me that drive home and then changing my clothes, that was a transition. Like now I’m at home. I’m no longer at work. And not having that has been difficult. We need to kind of create boundaries around our work. And this is really something I feel really strongly about is that I don’t believe that people should be working in their bedrooms. I don’t think that people should be working in the relaxed spaces. Those are spaces for relaxation, for rest, not for working. And so when you associate work or stress with those places, it’s obviously a lot harder to relax, to sleep, to do the kinds of things that you need to do. And now I understand that not everybody has large spaces where they can have their room just dedicated to work. But like walling it off a little bit, like cheap plastic dividers or some way of sort of walling off your computer. That’s work. This is home. This is where I relax. This is where I work.

Saba: University of Chicago’s Human Capital and Economic Opportunity Global Working Group did a study recently where they looked at 5000 workers across the social class spectrum, across different racial groups as well. And what they found was that black and Latinx Americans are actually reporting more resilience and optimism than white Americans are. And that holds up regardless of income category. And especially kind of true between low income white Americans as compared to low income black Americans. And I think that that can be surprising to some people. It was surprising to me. But some of the things they talked about in terms of the different kinds of coping. They talked about how black Americans might be turning a little bit more to religion. So, again, social networks for coping. They talked about, obviously, the different histories and overcoming adversity, sort of strong community ties. But then one thing that kind of interested me was the stronger belief among, lower income black Americans in the promise of education. Being able to have some flexibility in your working and I thought that that was kind of interesting in terms of resilience, is that we can help build these coping mechanisms for communities if we look at the literature and see what communities are already doing. If, for example workers are saying that connection, social connections especially with their communities are important, how do we provide time for those kinds of social connections? Maybe even suggestions for coping is that when people are struggling, helping them to say, you know, you talked about this being important to you. Have you been interacting with your faith community? Have you been interacting with people who are important to you? I think it helps with the suggestions around coping and really augments coping when people sort of understand who their workforce is and what ways they’re using to cope.

Michael: If nothing else, there are broad strategies which can greatly increase the support and therefore resilience of workplaces at this time. Those being flexibility, communication, showing appreciation, and sharing with employees what resources are available to them.

Saba: Understanding that there might be essential functions that need to get done, but where can you be flexible with your workers, especially for people who may have young children or care for dependent adults or something like that. I think good communication. Again, role modeling, making sure that people feel a sense of belonging, you know, thanking people. It goes a long way. Just appreciating what they do. So, I think providing, the resources that you might be able to use is really helpful to people. And I think it has more meaning when it comes from somebody who they trust and respect or who, you know, they feel like may have some authority over them.

Michael: Resilience does not happen without a sustained effort. When a workplace makes it a point to be supporting employees, the overall resilience increases. When those efforts continue for prolonged amounts of time it becomes ingrained in workplace culture and it has numerous benefits on stress, burnout, fatigue, depression, absenteeism, and productivity.

Saba: It goes back to that idea of resilience, it’s the ability to cope with negative experiences. So, when there is a crisis and people feel supported, there already is an existing culture of support, then people tend to fare better within those kinds of experiences. So, I think it’s always just maintaining that culture of support and support doesn’t mean you’re emailing the person every day to check in on them. I think it’s creating the idea that the person doesn’t feel like they have to hide what’s going on for them or that they do know that there’s resources available to them and that employers are willing to be flexible for them to reach out to those resources. You create a culture where people feel part of something, they feel supported. They don’t worry about losing their job if they’re experiencing a crisis. They know that they may be able to take that flexible time off. I think that constant communication helps to create that work culture that does translate into mental wellness over time.

Michael: Workplace Matters is supported by the national institute for occupational safety and health. To listen to more podcasts, view our ongoing video series, or for more information about us, visit healthier workforce center [dot] org  Thank you!

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