Mental Health & Well-Being in the Workplace

By Stephanie Hammerwold

I recently attended the National Human Resources Association’s panel on “The Impact of Mental Health in the Workplace.” We spend a large amount of our time in the workplace. If employees are struggling with mental illness, that comes to work with them. It affects their work and well being, so it is important that employers recognize the need to provide resources to support employee mental health.

The Reality of Mental Illness

Steve Pitman is the president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. During the panel, he pointed out that one in five people will have a diagnosis of mental illness this year. Of those diagnosed, 50% are not getting treatment. Given these numbers, it is clear that this is an area that employers must address.

The signs of mental illness are not outwardly visible, and Pitman said that the number one reason people do not seek treatment is the stigma. There is this thought that a person can just get over it. But the reality is that treating mental illness requires help and support—just as people get for physical illness. If workplaces are open and supportive of mental health, it helps break down that stigma, and this is good for everyone. As Pitman explained, “An environment that supports mental health supports all employees.”

How to Support Employees

Your employee assistance program (EAP) and coverage for mental health in your insurance plan are excellent places to start, but supporting mental health does not stop there. Find ways to incorporate mental health into your existing wellness program. You can also provide training on topics like suicide prevention, recognizing the signs of depression and supporting children with mental illness. Panelist Sheryl Correa of St. Joseph Health explained that your approach to mental health education should also include training people on positive well-being in the workplace. At St. Joseph, she said that they open meetings with a reflection to help people focus and feel grounded.

Correa offered five easy steps that employees can easily incorporate into their daily routine:

  • Gratitude—figure out something you are grateful for
  • Journal one positive thing you have done in the last 24 hours
  • Exercise
  • Meditate
  • Practice random acts of kindness

These changes can start small. For example, meditate for a minute and slowly increase that one minute each day until you get to your target length of time. HR professionals and managers can support employees by allowing them to slow down occasionally to take a few minutes to focus on these things or even encourage them to use break time to go for a relaxing walk away from their desk.

Panelist Noma Bruton offers more suggestions on her blog. Bruton is certified as a mental health first aid instructor and works with HR professionals to train them on recognizing and responding to the signs of mental illness in the workplace as well as ways to support mental health in the workplace. As she points out in her blog post, “In the past, HR contributed to issues of discrimination, sexual harassment, cracking the glass ceiling and providing employment to people with disabilities.  By bringing meaningful change to the workplace, HR is well placed to move the dial on mental health.”

Reshaping the Workplace

While it is important that we have resources to help employees focus on mental health, it is also necessary that we look at how our work environments affect mental health. Toxic work environments do nothing to support positive well-being. If you notice that morale is low and that employees are regularly struggling, take the time to look at your policies and practices. Are your managers creating an environment that encourages long days and impossible deadlines? Are they supervising by yelling and bullying?

Supporting mental health in the workplace also requires that we look to our own practices to make sure we are not causing unnecessary stress. Create an environment where employees can have a work-life balance and can have time off to spend with friends and families. Happier employees are more productive and are better ambassadors for your company and your brand.

In Praise of Night Owls

By Stephanie Hammerwold

As I was driving to a seminar that started at 7 a.m. this morning and grumbling about the early hour, I got to thinking about how the workplace is set up in a way that favors morning people. If it was not obvious from my opening sentence, I am a night owl. I always have been. I find that I am most productive during the later hours, and I have always had a hard time working a standard 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule. No amount of coffee makes interacting with people at 8:30 a.m. tolerable for me. Yet, for most of my working life and even going back to my school days, my schedule involved early mornings. I think night owls are sometimes misunderstood because we don’t always fit well in the morning person world.

Being a Night Owl Doesn’t Mean You’re Lazy

Years of having to be at work by 8:30 or earlier have ruined my ability to sleep in. I would much rather stay up until 1 or 2 a.m. and then get up around 9 or 10 a.m., but that’s just not the way the world is set up. Attending meetings and seminars, talking to clients and running errands often requires morning availability. Over the years I have received grief from others when I talk about sleeping in—there seems to be this assumption that I enjoy sleeping in because I am lazy. I think I speak for a lot of night owls when I say, we are not lazy. We just happen to be more productive when all the morning people are already retiring for the day.

Despite the fact that not all of us are on friendly terms with the morning hours, workplaces (particularly office jobs) rely on a schedule that best suits morning people. Granted, we have established that business hours are roughly 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., so this makes sense. But working for myself has taught me a lot about when work can be done. I typically have calls and emails that need to be done during daylight hours, but quite a bit of my work involves writing, researching and drafting policies and other similar projects. Being able to plan these projects so that I do not have to complete them during the early morning hours has made me much more productive. I am no longer dragging my feet the way I would in the corporate environment when I was working traditional business hours.

Working without Distractions

One thing I enjoy about getting things done later in the day is that there are fewer distractions. The phone rings less, and people are less likely to email. By 10 p.m., the world is peaceful, and even the traffic noise in my neighborhood has dropped to almost nothing. In the calm of the night, I find that I am at my most creative. When all the hustle and bustle of the daytime has disappeared, it is a world of possibilities.

I recently participated in (and won!) National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). My favorite time to write was at night. I have produced some of my best writing when it is dark out. By contrast, trying to craft coherent sentences in the early morning hours is a fruitless endeavor.

How to Work in a Morning Person’s World

So, how do night owls adapt to a morning person’s world? For me, I have been lucky enough to leave the corporate world and focus on building my own business endeavors. I am less tired than I used to be and happier because I can often set a sleep schedule that is more in line with what my body craves. But not everyone is in a position where they can work for themselves.

For business owners, I think offering flexible work schedules, when possible, is a good start. If you have an office where most people work a schedule that requires an early morning start, ask yourself if it is necessary to have everyone there at an early hour. Staggering start times has its advantages beyond accommodating night owls. You can keep your office open longer hours because not everyone will be gone by 5 p.m. Also, to the seminar planners out there, I would not mind having a few seminars in the afternoon rather than all these early morning times.

Night owls, how do you cope with being in a morning person’s world?

Amazon and the Problem with Overworked Employees

By Stephanie Hammerwold

Amazon recently made headlines when The New York Times published a piece about the company’s high stress culture in which employees are pushed beyond their limit in the name of innovation and company success. Many were quick to point the finger at Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos for encouraging a culture where the company’s white-collar workers are expected to be available at all hours and where it is frowned upon to take time off even for health issues. While all of this certainly points to problems with Amazon, it is really a larger symptom of the culture we live in. Let’s face it: the U.S. has a big problem with overworked employees.

Does Technology Make Life Easier?

In July, Planet Money did an episode on economist John Maynard Keynes’s prediction that by the early 21st century, we would be able to work only 15 hours per week and meet all of our basic needs. Keynes said we would become more productive, thus reducing the amount of time we needed to work. This would free up time for more leisure activities. As the hosts of Planet Money pointed out, Keynes was right about productivity. We are able to produce far more goods than people did 100 years ago; however, we are nowhere close to that 15-hour workweek.

Many of us our tethered to our jobs by technology that allows us to call, email and text from just about anywhere. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, 50% of Americans said on average they worked more than 40 hours per week and that the average workweek is 47 hours per week. As for salaried employees, 25% claimed that they average at least 60 hours per week. Clearly technology has not increased productivity to the point where we can work less. In fact, it seems that technology has made it possible for us to do more work and stretch our to-do lists by miles.

I have been a part of teams implementing new workplace technology. With each new piece of software comes the promise that it will free up all kinds of time by automating and streamlining processes. Sure, most tech delivers on this promise, but the end result is really that it frees up time to take on more work. In this sense, technology has failed to deliver us Keynes’s vision of the 15-hour workweek.

The Workplace & the Culture of Instant Gratification

I remember placing my first order from Amazon in the ‘90s, shortly after the company launched. Back then, Amazon was just an online bookstore. At that point, deliveries by drones were not even a twinkle in the collective eye of the American consumer. Amazon has since grown to be a huge operation with everything from household products to groceries to clothing, sports equipment and even streaming video. And, of course, they still have books. I have friends who cannot stop talking about all the benefits of Amazon Prime membership. Amazon is fulfilling a strong need in a busy time. When a few clicks gets you an order of toilet paper and other household goods delivered to your door within a few days, what’s not to love about such convenience?

But, as the article in The New York Times shows, convenience comes at a price. Behind the easy ordering process and the quick deliveries are huge distribution centers and corporate employees scrambling at all hours to develop the processes and technology to meet the ever-increasing demand of an instant-gratification culture. When we order something, we want it now, not two weeks from now. Technology has also made it such that we do not see all the people laboring behind the scenes to get our products to us quickly.

In a way, our desire for instant gratification is doing us in by creating a culture where feeling overworked is the norm. Sure, we have access to all kinds of products and services at the push of a button, but is it worth our mental health when we put in 60-hour weeks and have little time to enjoy the fruits of our labor?

How Do We Make a Change?

I have experienced similar situations to the ones told by Amazon employees. While mine were not always as extreme, there was a certain familiarity in the long hours and being pushed to the point of exhaustion. So, are we doomed to work at companies like Amazon where long hours are the norm and employees seem miserable?

I do not think it has to be this way. Change starts at the top and with owners who believe our personal needs are just as, if not more, important as work. Those at the top should lead by example and not put in long hours. If employees see the boss at work late and responding to email at midnight, they are likely to engage in the same style of working. In the culture of overwork, we have forgotten that time off is actually a good thing. It allows us to refresh and recharge. If we expect employees to work long hours without taking time off where they are relieved of all work responsibilities, they will become exhausted and therefore less productive.

This all sounds great in theory, but it will require a huge shift in how we think about work. At the end of my life, I know I do not want to say, “Wow, I’m sure glad I spent most of my vacations with my phone in my hand so I could stay in touch with the office.” Life is about much more than work. It is about the time we spend with the people we care about, the adventures we go on and even the days spent curled up under a blanket and lost in a good book. While the 15-hour workweek may never come to fruition, I think it is possible for us to shift our thinking about work and to remember that not everything has to be done yesterday.

Shhh! I’m Trying to Work: Thoughts on Managing Noise in the Workplace

By Stephanie Hammerwold

As I sit down to write this, gardeners are using leaf blowers across the street, and there is a fairly constant presence of drivers gunning their engines as though my street is a racetrack. Even though I work mostly from my home office and have some control over my space, the constant soundtrack is frustrating because I have realized I am sensitive to noise—especially when I am writing. I can handle a little bit of music if I am in control of the music, but most other noise makes me tense, and I lose focus.

I am the kind of person who avoids certain restaurants because the music is too loud. I cannot walk into a Best Buy without feeling assaulted by loud music and blaring TVs. These types of environments are the norm, and in some ways I think that we have accepted noise as a given in our lives. What does this mean for the workplace? Do we need to just accept it as a part of modern life, or are there ways to create a quiet workplace?

My Experience with Noisy Workplaces

We live in a noisy world. We are bombarded by loud music, the rush of traffic, the whir of blenders in a favorite coffee spot or whatever provides the noise that populates our world. Quiet is elusive, and the way to find it is to either carve out our own space or to escape to a distant retreat for a few days. When excessive noise infiltrates our workplace, it can affect our ability to concentrate, and it adds additional stress to our jobs.

I often have not realized how much noise affects me until I am out of a noisy situation. I used to work in HR at a manufacturing and distribution company. For my last couple years there, I was HR manager at the distribution center, so my office was located in a noisy warehouse. A typical workday included the constant sound of beeping forklifts, tape guns and the blare of the PA system. By the end of a workweek, I would often choose to spend the whole weekend by myself at home so that I could avoid noisy environments.

Working for myself has meant that much of what I do takes place in my home office. While I still contend with noisy cars and leaf blowers outside, I have a lot more control over my immediate space. It has made a big difference in my ability to focus and get things done.

Controlling the Noise

Working in a traditional office could be a challenge for me. There always seemed to be the distraction of conversations, the copy machine or all the other background noise present in such an environment. I have friends who wear earplugs at work to shut out some of the office noise, and I like to use headphones with classical music. The headphones and music give me some control over the sound, which has worked well for me.

Many offices are set up with cubicles, and open office plans have received attention lately. For those of us sensitive to noise, these options are not ideal work situations. While open plans may help some collaborate more, they can be frustrating for those who are most productive when they are in control of the noise.

Technology has opened up many possibilities for changing how we work, and I do not think employers have fully embraced the ways they can use it to improve the workplace when it comes to noise. It is not always possible to give everyone their own office, but employers can allow for more work-from-home options. While in-person collaboration is sometimes necessary, there are many tasks that can be performed from home. Giving employees a day or two per week to work from home may be a good balance between collaboration and quiet, alone time to get work done.

Some Final Thoughts on Quiet

I do not think it is enough to accept that we live in a noisy world. While we can make small adjustments to our workspace, minimizing exposure to noise is challenging. Does noise get in the way of working for you? How do you deal with a noisy work environment? Share your thoughts in the comments.

HR Lessons From Fictional Workplaces

By Stephanie Hammerwold

When you are trying to save the world one workplace at a time, it is hard to turn off the HR part of your brain. This means that I often find myself analyzing the work environments in my favorite books, movies and TV shows. Fictional stories are a great way to understand our lives better. Even if we are retreating into a world populated with dragons, magic and time travel, we can gain insight and think through problems in our own lives.

Lessons from Vonnegut on Workplace Automation
In a post for Blogging4Jobs, I wrote about the way reading shapes our understanding of work. Kurt Vonnegut’s books and short stories provide us with some food for thought on the workplace. Published in 1952, Player Piano was Vonnegut’s first novel. In the novel’s dystopian future, automation is to the point where human labor is nearly obsolete. To combat some of the problems caused by laborers with no purpose, people create jobs that are really just busy work in order to combat the idleness due to lack of real work.

While we still may be far from replacing all our human employees with machines, technology is evolving so quickly that it is easy to forget how it affects employees. Look at the shift in job duties caused by the personal computer. Secretaries have become administrative assistants, and most of us write our own emails rather than relying on someone to take dictation and type up the letter for us.

Rather than thinking only of how technology will improve a process, think of how technology can make work better for your employees. In addition, training needs to be a constant in the world of rapid technology evolution. This is the key to helping your employees grow with changing workplace technology.

Work on TV: Parks & Recreation and Downton Abbey
Two of my favorite shows are Parks & Recreation and Downton Abbey. Parks & Recreation ended its seven-year run recently, and Downton Abbey just announced that next season would be its last. The action on both shows revolves around the workplace, so they are full of all kinds of HR lessons.

Parks & Recreation follows Leslie Knope, Ron Swanson and other members of the Parks Department in the fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana. As I wrote about recently in a post for The HR Gazette, the best lesson learned from this show is about workplace friendships. Despite his anti-government, libertarian ways, Ron tolerates his job because of the bond he forms with his coworkers, which he calls “workplace proximity associates.” Sometimes we forget that one of the things people value most in a job is working with people they enjoy being around. Read more about my take on Parks & Recreation at Blogging4Jobs.

Downton Abbey gives us a peek at life in a large estate in early 20th century England. The house employs a staff of servants that include kitchen employees, footmen, lady’s maids and more. With all those folks under one roof, it’s no wonder that Downton is full of workplace drama. Check out my recent Blogging4Jobs post for more on the employees of Downton.