During the first week of any job, by law, you are usually asked to review and acknowledge the common workplace safety hazards to ensure your safety at the workplace. For office jobs, this can be reviewing ergonomic sitting positions, or best practices to get up and move about to avoid neck/back strain. For jobs in warehouses or manufacturing facilities, it’s much more in depth about creating a safe workplace. What all of this training has in common is the fact that they pertain only to physical health. There are generally no considerations about potential risks to your mental health, or what can be done to manage and mitigate those risks.
I am an analyst and have always worked in a logistics capacity. That means my job is to find problems and fix them before they bigger, or perhaps even fix them before they happen. Day in and day out, I look at facts and make decisions about what is the most efficient way of doing something. While that makes sense in a business capacity, it can be detrimental in a mental health capacity. What happens when I’m wired to “fix” problems, and my professional success depends on it, but my mental health isn’t something that can be fixed? When talking about mental health, we talk about how important it is to not have to find a solution to everything, and recognize that sometimes the long, hard way is the best way. We have to acknowledge that we don’t always know how to fix our depression or our anxiety and accept it as it is sometimes. BUT…that goes completely against what I spend most of my day doing. Taking a minute and not having an answer is not an option, so I get into a habit of constantly searching for an answer both at work, and outside of work.
When I first got into forecasting, I was warned that the way success was measured would be something I had to grapple with, because it could be hard on me mentally since it wasn’t about acknowledging what is right. Forecasting is based on error, which means that your metrics don’t acknowledge how well you did, it means they’re measured based on how wrong you are. Your percentage of wrongness becomes the number attached to your performance. For someone who is constantly striving to be right, and derives a lot of self worth from how well I do professionally, wrapping my head around the idea that the only thing I could be 100% sure of was that I would always be wrong was more than a small challenge. I was lucky that I was warned, because then I had time to work on what my metrics meant for my mental health, but many workplaces don’t consider that or warn their employees about these factors. We are always told to take pride in our work, take our results personally, but the cost of taking on that stress can be quite high. Ever since graduation, I’ve worked with a portfolio that is worth so much, that in a day I’m working with more dollars than I will likely see in my lifetime.
When I first started working and realized that my job could pertain to millions of dollars in a day, I wasn’t ready for that kind of pressure and responsibility without any reassurance that mistakes were fixable. I remember making my first big mistake that would have cost the corporation tens of thousands of dollars, and I was so stressed out about it for a few days after. I couldn’t sleep or eat properly, and I was constantly on edge that I would make a mistake again. Luckily, I was able to fix that one quickly enough, but when my employer found out about the error, the only discussion was about future risk mitigation and if I was able to fix it without any other issues. We need to challenge this narrative, because while that one mistake was fixable, I made many more that were not, and the toll it took on my mental health was immense. Sometimes I’d make a small mistake and start to shake from anxiety, or I’d go to the bathroom and cry after a really difficult phone call about results, or I’d lash out at my friends and family in my personal life. We can create workplaces that strive for excellence, and are consistently looking to improve, but are also facilitating environments conducive to learning and supporting people when we make mistakes. I’m not saying that workplaces need to be okay with mistakes being made that cost the company large sums of money, but mistakes are less likely to happen when people feel supported and confident that their manager is behind them to help and guide them, rather than criticize their mistake.
The human body is not wired to function for more than a certain number of hours per day, yet we have countless examples of people in extremely important professions working long hours. Doctors, lawyers, investment bankers are all making some of the hardest imaginable decisions, but will work upwards of 100 hours a week. We talk about the toll this can take on their physical health – diminished cognitive functioning, reduced immunity, but why aren’t we acknowledging the inherent risks this poses to their mental health?
We live in a world now where our work cannot easily be separated from our personal lives. 30 years ago, you would go to work, and when you’d leave you would be done. Now we have work phones, work laptops, and the ability to work from wherever in the world we are. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it means I can work from home if I need to so that I don’t get too behind, or that some people can maintain a better schedule that is more convenient for them. However, it also means that the lines between our personal and professional lives blur even more, and our mental health and state in one area of our lives bleeds into the other. If our job is really stressful or difficult, it can make things more strained in our personal lives, and vice versa. And while ultimately it is an employee’s job to maintain a balance and separation between personal and professional, if there is an expectation of professional engagement in traditionally personal realms, the employer also has a responsibility to facilitate creating a new balance.
Many progressive workplaces now have employee wellness programs, where they will offer discounted gym memberships, or a gym onsite, free yoga classes, or dollars allocated through employee benefits to support physical health. Most of these places do not offer mental health wellness support. The stigma associated with mental health at work is inherent in the lack of support that is presented for maintaining positive mental health. If employers emphasized and supported mental wellness as much as they focus on physical wellness, I am confident that we would see much higher productivity, less absenteeism, and a more positive work environment overall. Just because these metrics may be harder to measure or quantify as a result of better employee mental health doesn’t mean they aren’t a vital part of cultivating the best possible work environment for optimal results.
So what are your workplace safety hazards related to mental health? Take a minute to think about the elements of your work life that have a negative impact on your mental health, or perhaps on your employee’s mental health. What can you do to mitigate those risks, and create a safer workplace? What can your colleagues or employers do to make you mentally safe at work? It’s time we start speaking out about these, because if we truly understand that mental health is just as important as physical health, our actions must say the same thing.
Keep Surviving by Living.