It is not about mindfulness

Tarja Kivistö In-House Coach, Head of Leadership Development & Mental Well-being Services, Solita

Published 23 Nov 2023

Reading time 7 min

Supporting mental well-being is still too often associated in organisations with reactive actions or one-off events – when it should be the foundation of the whole culture of work. Something that is seen as an integral part of strategy, something that is measured, supported and invested in. Breathing exercises and wellness days do not produce long-term well-being or productivity gains. It is about something very different.

Mental well-being may be a subject that you don’t think about when everything is going well and smoothly. But in those moments when it’s windy and turbulent – either within yourself, around you or both – the importance of mental well-being becomes very apparent. A strong mental well-being supports us in challenging life situations – carrying us, helping us to seek help, assisting us to find solutions. However, mental well-being is not a stable state; it is constantly living and changing. It can often be forgotten that it is perfectly normal for a healthy mind to feel tired, anxious, fearful, and bored. Sadness and hard times are all part of human life. Good mental health is not about being happy all the time or being in a constant state of high spirits in the face of everything life throws at you. And so, in working life – all this is present too.

Work-life has a big impact

The impact of work-life on mental well-being is undoubtedly significant – after all, we spend half of our waking hours with our work, our colleagues, our work culture, and our community. The research findings on mental health and well-being of working-aged people are undeniably worrying; globally only 21% of employees feel engaged and enthusiastic about their job and up to 67% of people do not feel that their overall well-being is at a good level (The State of the Global Workplace 2022 Report). In Finland alone, one in four people of working age is exhausted (or will be exhausted in the future) and mental health-related reasons already account for more than 50% of all reasons for work disability - every day 9 people of working age retire on disability due to depression (Finnish Institute of Occupational Health). All this has a huge economic cost – not to mention human suffering. The link between investment in mental health and productivity/ results can no longer be unseen.

The reasons for the state of mental health in today’s working life are diverse. Changing world situations as well as personal life circumstances certainly have a major impact. The intensity of work, the laws of knowledge work and the factors related to one’s own thinking and behaviour play a role. What is certain is that mental well-being is never just about ourselves. But fortunately, we are not only dependent on our environment either. It is both – our own abilities to lead our thoughts, emotions, actions and the environment that influences us. One thing I would like to highlight is the tension between working practices and humanity. If I look at working life in general, I feel that we still do not sufficiently a) understand humanity and accept its dimensions and b) do not know how to lead it well enough – and this creates both direct and indirect problems for our (mental) health.

Is humanity accepted in workplaces?

Understanding and accepting humanity in workplaces is e.g. accepting that we human beings are not built to work at 100% effort 7,5 h a day, 5 days a week, with equal efficiency, performing high-intensive tasks in a constant state of optimum alertness – and taking this into account when we make decisions related to our workloads, expectations, schedules, meeting practices etc. Accepting humanity is also understanding that our basic psychological needs drive us all the time at work too - we need to be heard and encountered, we need to feel we belong, we need autonomy and trust to do our work, we need to feel we are valuable and matter. We need to feel safe. And that’s why we need to respond to these at work too. Acceptance of humanity could also mean making the decision to expect the good of another person’s intentions and to try to understand them. Recognising (and especially communicating) one’s own limits and needs is also acceptance of humanity in practice.

Leading humanity is building practices and habits that work for human beings. I believe that one of the biggest causes of exhaustion is that we too often work within dysfunctional structures. Structural problems can be as much about thoughts and attitudes as they are about concrete practices, processes and behaviours. Dysfunctional structures are often dysfunctional precisely because they are created (consciously or unconsciously) by ignoring the fact that people do the work. For example, the amount of work may be far too much for the hours worked. Or the demands of the job are so heavy that you constantly have to stretch yourself to cope with them – or so contradictory that they are impossible to meet. Or expectations are not sufficiently discussed, which makes work very consuming. Or there may not be time to discuss experiences within the team (which is what we humans also need). Or maybe there is a culture around that makes people hide their disagreements and silence their calls for help.

Such challenges are not solved by buying trainings or by reminding people of the importance of resting on holiday. Time management tips will not work if the culture does not support breaks between meetings. Meditation in the evening doesn’t help if you haven’t had a chance to recover regularly during the working day. Self-leadership training doesn’t help if there is too much work, unclear goals and conflicting expectations. Feedback and communication trainings will not help if there is no culture of dialogue or places to talk about experiences in the first place. Attending a well-being lecture will not help if well-being is not a key element of the organisation’s strategy. Encouraging people to take care of themselves will not work if you get an example of the exact opposite from leaders. Inviting people to come to the office doesn’t help if the work culture does not support meaningful connections between people.

Making it a natural subject to talk about

Strengthening mental well-being in workplaces is not about the individuals. It is about the community. We need to turn our focus to questions such as: What are the ways in which we can strengthen psychological safety, cohesion and connection? How do we enable growth as experts and as people? How do we support flexibility, diversity, different life situations and autonomy? How do we strengthen the experience of appreciation, dialogue and being heard? Who do we choose for leadership roles to lead by example (what kind of example) and how do we support them to consider these aspects as well? It is good to pay attention to where are these experiences created, by whom and what structures support them – or hinder them – right there on a daily basis. If our attention is not on these when we talk about mental well-being at work, our attention is on the wrong things.

Mental health must become as a natural topic to talk about as business decisions and winning deals. People need to be exposed to the conversation and encouraged to engage in it themselves on topics that touch perhaps the most vulnerable area of our lives – the mind. This has been one of the aims behind our Mental Well-being Services, which include different preventative support to support people as people – not just as employees: In-house coaching offers individuals support for personal and professional growth. More therapeutic support on the other hand can provide deeper help for e.g a challenging life situation when it’s needed. Leadership peer groups can bring peers together and strengthen cohesion. Group coachings can provide tools for challenging situations or get you to explore your team from different perspectives. Organised moments for the whole work community to pause and reflect on themes related to humanity, build a space where it is perfectly ok and perfectly normal to talk about mental health, coping and well-being. I’m convinced that’s the kind of space we need in our working lives much more than we have.

I wish we could stop talking about how meditation, better self-leadership skills, having some therapy, coaching and deep breaths are enough to produce mental well-being at work. Don’t get me wrong, they are hugely important, we human beings need this kind of support and skills. I do every one of them myself – some of them even for a living. But that they alone are enough to enhance well-being at work? That they alone would be enough to keep our people in good condition mentally? No. They are supportive actions – the foundation must be in place. If the core problem is in culture, attitudes, structures, leadership and difficulty accepting humanity, we should focus on them. We need to understand more broadly and look more deeply. Even into things that are not easy, comfortable and simple. 

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