October 10 is World Mental Health Day. How healthy is your workplace?
It’s no surprise that America has a workaholic job culture. According to Project: Time Off, 29 percent of employees identified as a work martyr, or someone who feels shame in taking time off. Most people check their phone hourly, if not every few minutes, according to a Gallup poll.
We also know that those habits are taking a toll on employees. An April study by researchers at the Technical University of Munich showed a link between work stress and trouble sleeping and a higher risk of cardiovascular death. In addition, research has concluded that stress kills performance and creativity, it changes your brain structure and even makes you more prone to mental illness. For businesses, prolonged workplace stress can also lead to higher absenteeism and turnover.
So why not change now? World Mental Health Day, an annual awareness campaign in October, offers the perfect reminder to bring balance to your office. Take a look at some research-backed strategies that could cut stress and boost the overall brain health of your team.
Look inside your office
Your office environment and its design actually does affect how your workers feel. People spend an average of 5 hours and 42 minutes at their desk each day. Make sure they have enough physical space and alternative workspaces, whether it’s standing desks, an office phone booth or comfortable couch. To avoid overcrowding or bland workspaces, allow your employees to customize their workspace.
Whether it’s adding plants, allowing music, letting in the sunlight or incorporating high ceilings and fresh air, there are many ways you can make your office a haven for mental wellness.
It may be as simple as music. New research also shows that music improves brain health and function—and it also decreases the stress hormone cortisol and increases the neurotransmitter dopamine.
Net Lawman, a UK-based provider of legal document templates and law-related services, allows employees to create an office playlist. “Everyone will feel included and if the choice of music is not too extreme, I think that most of the people will be able to relax and do their jobs with less stress,” says Andrew Taylor, a Net Lawman director.
A recent study by researchers in Korea shows that plants can reduce your stress levels—and can simultaneously clean the air. A Harvard study showed that improving air quality inside the office ignited mental cognition.
Give more thought to how you can bring in sunlight to your workplace, because not surprisingly, bad lighting is associated with all sorts of negative health effects, whether it’s anxiety or stress.
Some companies make natural light a top priority. In Salt Lake City, Utah, for instance, Overstock installed 30,000-square-foot smart windows that automatically optimize natural daylight for employees. If you’ve got an office with a view, even better—it’s been shown to lift people’s spirits, too.
Make room for mindfulness
Meditation is becoming a resounding chorus across the world as research shows how it actually changes your brain, improves your health and shifts your mindset. The key to meditation is finding a quiet space, closing your eyes, focusing on your breath and when your attention drifts, returning your focus to your breath. It’s simple, and mindfulness apps can help.
But where do you find room to unwind inside an office environment—let alone a bustling open office?
ROOM recently partnered with Calm, the San Francisco maker of the #1 app for meditation and relaxation, to launch new in-office booths for mindfulness and quiet respite at work. Affordable and easy to install, the booths look much like a traditional ROOM telephone booth but tweaked for those quick much-needed time-outs.
Frosted acrylic doors let in light but preserve privacy. Inside, Calm’s signature motto—take a deep breath—is decaled on the wall, encouraging office workers to do just that. Breathe. Says Christi-An Slomka, Calm’s community manager: “When you step in and just breathe, it can really shift something.”
Each booth comes with twelve complimentary Premium subscriptions to Calm for a year, so employees can shut out the noise and open Calm to listen to relaxing music, hear a calming story or follow any number of guided meditations.
“So often, we’re in our own head—with our minds spinning—and we get disconnected from the moment,” says Slomka. “It can be difficult to stop and breathe and meditate in an open office, and this offers an affordable and comfortable way to create that space.”
Meditation not only offers great stress relief, it can also improve your overall health, including relieving chronic pain, boosting immunity, slowing aging, lowering blood pressure, and even preventing diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.
The importance of meditation is not lost on a growing number of companies. Johnson & Johnson offers employees training on “spiritual awakening” and mental health services, and at Mondelez—the maker of Oreos and Ritz crackers—staff can learn the art of “mindful snacking.”
Smaller firms, too, are embracing mindfulness as core to their company cultures. Arizona-based Anderson Advertising & PR brought in experts to teach workers to meditate, and afterwards, top execs left reminders around the office, encouraging people to stay present. The simple printed messages sat on tables throughout the office, suggesting people stop what they are doing, take a breath and observe what’s happening.
We all know exercise is a good thing. It also helps your brain, improving blood flow, enhancing memory and producing endorphins that improve sleep and reduce stress.
Turns out, if you exercise, you’re more efficient—and smarter. Research shows that vigorous exercise actually improves IQ scores by releasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or the protein that makes your neurons healthier. Plus, exercise might just increase the brain’s hippocampus, which handles memory and spatial recognition.
A great office design can inspire people to move throughout the day. Inviting stairs could prompt them to ditch the elevator, for instance. The vending machine, too, might be strategically placed to prompt a little leg stretching.
Smart companies organize group exercise during work hours, such as daily yoga classes inside a vacant meeting room or a noon group bike ride, run or walk. For those companies with employees who dislike office wellness programs, ClassPass and HR tech company JustWorks recently created a program to bring studio fitness classes to businesses across the country.
At GoDigital Media Group in Los Angeles, employees ditch the coffee in the afternoon when energy wanes in favor of some activity. The team may play some beach volleyball or rent some kayaks for an hour or two. Says Steve Fisher, director of communications at the entertainment tech firm: “Everybody comes back refreshed. It’s good to get the circulation going.”
True, getting outside, whether it’s a 20-minute stroll or simply sitting in the sunlight, can do wonders for your stress level, according to research by the University of Michigan.
Be a better leader
This one is hard to swallow, but the mood and morale of a workplace usually comes from the top. Bad leadership can take a toll on your workers’ mental health.
Consider whether your leaders give enough feedback to their teams, whether your company conveys a unified vision and communicates how individual people fit into the company’s success. Are employees able to create boundaries, such as turning off alerts on Slack during evening hours? Are their workloads realistic?
It’s no shock that when employees feel valued, it reduces stress and boosts productivity and overall well-being. So, too, does just simple encouragement and acknowledgement of people’s efforts.
Today more than ever before, people are the most valuable assets for most companies, and that brainpower needs nurturing. Whether it’s creating a healthy office space, providing adequate time and space for meditation, or leading with encouragement, good mental health means good business.