• Audrey Tang

Make wellbeing & mental health a workplace priority

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

I was interviewed for Headspring on getting more wellbeing into the workplace. This transcript offers my thought as well as practical tips for leaders.

Headspring: How are culture, environment and attitudes to mental wellbeing in the workplace changing, and what has precipitated these changes?

AT: Organisations are now becoming more aware of mental wellbeing. The more cynical might say it is because stress is potential loss of revenue, and often the happier the employee, the better the return on investment. However, it is also because mental health has been spoken about more widely, more disorders are being recognised, and people are more confident at speaking to their employers because they feel more supported (especially with the 2010 Equality Act), rather than viewing mental illness as great a stigma as it once was. Governments are also helped by celebrities such as Stephen Fry and Ruby Wax being open about their personal struggles.


HOWEVER, this is mainly in the UK, Europe, Canada, Australia and the US. In many other cultures – and even within certain cultures living within those areas, mental illness is still seen as a source of shame.

Headspring: How does psychological safety impact employee wellbeing, as well as key business areas like innovation, productivity and growth?

AT: Research has shown that a focus on wellbeing has resulted in organisational self-reports of:

· A healthier work-life balance (eg. Shanafelt et al, 2012; Michel et al, 2014)

· Improvements in resilience (eg Keye & Pidgeon 2013; Pidgeon & Keye, 2014)

· Performance benefits for leaders such as improvements in compassion and collaboration (eg. Ling & Chin, 2012; Trisgolio, 2017).


But, building emotional resilience is an essential part of wellbeing. It will help employees manage the growing demands placed on them as well as bounce back after failure, also reminding them that failure is nothing to be ashamed of. As poker players will say, it’s easy to win when the cards are in your favour, but the skill lies in playing a bad hand well. Therefore, attending to wellbeing while the waters are calm (ie. pre-emptively) can help reinforce and maintain a healthy positivity at work – which in turn supports performance.


These three tips can help you temper the effects of pressure and in turn enhance performance:

1. Conduct a “wellbeing audit”

A “safe” environment - where support and development structures are clear, where executives operate within a friendly network free from harassment or bullying, where responsibility is preferred over blame, is often the best environment. However, although this may be the aim of the leader, it may not be the reality. Carrying out a “safety audit” – an informal (and anonymous) survey – of your organisation may also give you insights with regards to the level of wellbeing within your team.

eg: Try this

Ask members of your organisation to rate it on a scale of 1 – 10 (where 10 is “very true” and 1 is not “very true”)

· I feel cared about at work

· I feel safe at work

· Work is fun.

· Everyone is treated fairly

· When I succeed or am good at something it is recognised

· I can be myself at work

· This is a friendly workplace

· I find work interesting

· My workplace takes bullying and harassment seriously

· I know how to get help when I am stuck with work.

· My workplace values my opinions.

· I know who talk to if I have a problem.

The answers will give you an insight into how your executives are feeling every day, and if there is a problem potentially open up a dialogue for further investigation and positive action.


2. Encourage teams to find moments to be mindful (formally or informally) for themselves

While the suggestions within this article have been specifically activity or exercise based, it is worth remembering that mindful practice does not always need to be formal - informal moments of being present can be just as conducive to good mental health and wellbeing.

Eg: Try this:

- When out walking listen to birdsong

- When out walking take a moment to feel the warmth of the sun

- When having a drink take a moment to appreciate the sensation as it quenches your thirst

- When eating take a moment to savour the taste – and see if you can recognise the multitude of flavours

- Treat yourself, just because (but be aware of your finances!)

o As a sub point, conduct a financial awareness audit – do you know how much you are spending? If so, you can make changes, or be pleased that when you treat yourself, there was a fund to do so. For a professional who manages a budget, this is also a positive work habit.

- Wear something that is uniquely expressive of you (even if it is not obviously displayed)

- Have photos of people – or things – that you love around you (many people say “It’s ok, they are on my phone” – but just a simple quick glance at an object of affection can generate oxytoxin, the bonding hormone.)


3. Teach teams to recognise and respect their boundaries

There are simple things that you can do to make your working day more pleasant:

- Go to the toilet when needed

- Stretch your legs by taking a short walk during the day

- Remember to drink water

- State and maintain your office hours (and switch your phone/laptop off at a certain time each night)

- Practice saying “I’ll let you know later” if you cannot yet say “No” directly

- Practice saying “I can only give you X time now” (and stick to it).


Setting boundaries not only protects emotional strength when you do so internally eg. through challenging unhelpful thoughts, but for a leader, they make it clear to others when you are available to help them, and sticking to them as much as you can is part of your commitment to valuing yourself while setting an excellent example to your team.


By incorporating mindful practice to build resilience and wellbeing, you will refine and enhance the skills you already have rather than place an extra demand on your multi-taking self. Most importantly, it will support and assist your successfully longevity in role.


Headspring: How can L&D and HR roles in organisations help foster greater mental wellbeing and psychological safety in the workplace?

AT: It is worth recognising that sometimes coping styles can be misinterpreted as mental illness eg. Commonly the Asian culture is one of saying little, in comparison to the US – but that doesn’t mean that the quiet Asian is depressed and the expressive American has ADHD…so the more people talk about mental health, the more that the diagnostic symptoms are discussed, the more we all begin to understand.


Further, with a multi-cultural work force, it may also be wise for organisations to think about whether their recommendations are culturally appropriate eg. if a culture tends towards a bio-medical cause of a mental health issued, they will be open to bio-medical treatment eg. anti-depressants. However, if a culture believes that the cause is more to do with personal factors or weakness – recommending bio-medical treatments may be dismissed. L&D and HR roles would do well to learn more about the cultural diversity in thinking of their workforce to best support everyone.


Even without going as far as cultural differences, it may be worth looking at how genders express their worries, and the mindset of the workforce. The phrase “stress consultancy” may be more appealing to organisations rather than sending any members to “counselling”. Whilst this may sound like semantics – if it means more people are willing to seek help, I wouldn’t worry greatly what I called myself.


Headspring: What are some common challenges that businesses face in developing greater mental health in the workplace, what are some common mistakes they make in meeting those challenges, and what are some alternative solutions?

AT: One of the biggest mistakes to my mind – and in my experience – is seeing employee wellbeing as simply a “tick-box” exercise; and/or the introduction of “wellbeing fads” without any real understanding of why that particular activity may be helpful to some. Mindfulness is a good example – in my book “The Leader’s Guide to Mindfulness” I state:

“According to “Fast Company” (2015) one of the reasons may be suspicion of this “cult-like” practice, is taking a “snack sized” approach such as “lunchtime wellbeing sessions” now appearing in some companies and institutions which left one researcher “profoundly depressed” (The Guardian, 2015). Alternatively, rather than incorporate mindfulness as an additional benefit, some US organisations have been providing their employees with mindfulness training in place of holiday entitlement and benefits (Whippmann, 2016).”


The alternative solution is the person who wishes to embed a culture of wellness knowing the needs of their company, and understanding what – of the possible solutions or interventions – may work most successfully. It may also be helpful if it is seen through the eyes of wanting people to be healthy rather than profit or being able to say “we do this”.


Whatever the final approach to embedding wellbeing, it must always be additional to good basic organisational procedures already in place!


Perhaps leaders can ask themselves:

What is the perception of wellbeing in your organisation?

What approaches to wellbeing have you experienced?

If you have experienced wellbeing techniques - were any of them helpful to you?

…and find a way of trialling those first.


Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt