Our home lives have invaded our workspaces, and vice-versa. The whole person, not just the employee, shows up at work, and likewise, it’s not just mom or dad who shows up at home. Because of the pandemic’s significant impact on employee work-life balance, employers can no longer assume employees have mental fortitude. According to a 2021 CDC survey, more than two in five adults (42%) reported symptoms of either anxiety or depression during the pandemic (Vahratian et al., 2021). Autistic individuals experience higher rates of anxiety or depression (Oomen et al., 2021). Due to these significant life pressures, employees may not successfully deal with work pressures and other matters. Because of this, employers play an essential role: Achieve an environment that is truly safe, nurturing, and supportive for everyone’s mental well-being beyond creating flexible work schedules and check-ins.
Employers can foster a mentally healthy workplace by:
- Furthering psychological safety
- Acknowledging strengths and autonomy
- Integrating wellness into business practices
Furthering Psychological Safety
Many employers are hiring autistic individuals and creating a psychologically safe environment for them. In his article, “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work,” William Kahn, who coined the term “employee engagement” in the 1990s, defines psychological safety as showing and employing one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status, or career (1990). Like psychological safety, the neurodiversity paradigm seeks to enable autistic individuals to express themselves without the risk of encountering adverse reactions from their colleagues and managers. The paradigm also sees all neurocognitive functioning as a natural part of the human variation that is to be expected and accepted as part of diversity (Honeybourne, 2019).
Further research shows that building psychological safety happens interaction-by-interaction, moment-by-moment, one-on-one, and with the entire team (Rothwell et al., 2015). According to the book Healthy Workplace Nudge, which further updated the idea of psychological safety in 2018, interacting with others with this paradigm in mind can lead to information sharing and improved coordination – coordination that becomes cooperation, and the willingness to share resources and collaborate around common goals. Social-emotional learning is a primary tool in promoting psychological safety. Employees of all social backgrounds and cognitive makeup experience mental well-being when they feel included, engaged, and empowered to contribute to the organization and think their views and expertise are heard and acted upon.
Acknowledging Strengths and Autonomy
According to a 2019 study in the Journal of Happiness, when employees perceive that their organization supports them and their strengths, they feel more satisfied with life and experience less burnout. The study findings also provide convincing evidence for the benefit of focusing on an individual’s strengths at work (Meyers et al.). Still, organizations must establish clear roles and responsibilities at the intersection of individual abilities and organizational needs. Employees who can work in a way that allows them to use their strengths are happier, less stressed, and more confident. Researchers Auston and Pisano have noted since 2017 that there is an ongoing effort to recognize and celebrate the strengths of autistic and other neurodivergent individuals in the workplace. Managers should continue to maximize strengths and minimize deficits to set autistic and other neurodivergent employees – and all employees for that matter – up for success.
It’s been long understood that talented employees with a high workload and little autonomy encounter difficulty in their learning and development, resulting in stress (Ruysseveldt and Dijke, 2011). These employees should create a plan of action with their manager if they feel swamped, according to this research. Employers can tailor environments for neurodiversity or individual differences in productivity and learning styles, allowing all employees to become more autonomous, especially when under a heavy workload. As someone with first-hand experience of social anxiety related to speaking, I benefitted from productivity enhancements like allowing me to write out my thoughts instead of verbalizing them in group discussions.
Integrating Wellness Into Business Practices
In addition to formally communicating wellness practices to employees, it’s also important for employers to instill these practices in workgroups and make wellness a part of the daily routine of the workplace. For example, managers can practice meditation, mindfulness, and stress resilience, share their knowledge with their direct reports and make these activities available during team meetings. Another technique identified in the 2010 piece “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working” is the practice of managers encouraging their direct reports to take a short break after 90 minutes of busy work to increase their focus by 30%. Another useful technique is scheduling blocks of time during the work week for direct reports to perform deep work to be absorbed in what they are doing, solve complex challenges, gain mastery, and deliver signature solutions (Miller et al., 2018). Switching between tasks quickly without having much time to think things over can deplete creative energy and compromise mental health (Newport, 2016). Organizations that infuse mental wellness into their DNA will always have an immediate positive effect on current and incoming employees.
One Final Note on Mental Well-Being
You may face a situation in which one of your employees struggles with severe mental-health difficulties. They may present a more pessimistic view of the future. At work they may suddenly show less enthusiasm or initiative. When someone is diagnosed with a disorder such as major depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, they might worry about telling their employer. As a manager, you can educate yourself on mental health, recognize symptoms and signs as cues to talk with an employee about their well-being, ask them open-ended questions and actively listen to their responses (Hasson and Butler, 2020). Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers must provide reasonable accommodations to eligible individuals, including those with a diagnosed mental-health disorder.
Employers have the power to enhance the mental well-being of all employees. By building a work environment that promotes psychological safety, acknowledges employees’ strengths and autonomy, and builds wellness practices into the workday, they can create a foundation for strong mental health and growth.
Austin, R. D. & Pisano, G. P. (2017). Neurodiversity as a competitive advantage. Harvard Business Review.
Hasson, G., Butler, D. (2020). Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Workplace: A Practical Guide for Employers and Employees. Capstone.
Honeybourne, V. (2019). The Neurodiverse Workplace. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Kahn, W.A. (1990). Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work. Academy of Management Journal. 33 (4): 692–724.
Meyers, M.C., Adams, B.G., Sekaja, L. et al (2019). Perceived Organizational Support for the Use of Employees’ Strengths and Employee Well-Being: A Cross-Country Comparison. J Happiness Stud 20, 1825–1841.
Miller, M., Williams, P., O’Neil, M. (2018). The Healthy Workplace Nudge: How Healthy People, Culture, and Buildings Lead to High Performance. Wiley.
Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Piatkus.
Rothwell, W.J., Stavros, J.M., Sullivan, R.L. (2015). Practicing Organization Development: Leading Transformation and Change. Wiley.
Schwartz, T., Gomes, J., McCarthy, C. (2010). The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance. Free Press.
Vahratian A., Blumberg S.J., Terlizzi E.P., Schiller J.S. (2021). Symptoms of Anxiety or Depressive Disorder and Use of Mental Health Care Among Adults During the COVID-19 Pandemic – United States, August 2020–February 2021. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2021;70:490–494. Oomen, D., Nijhof, A.D. & Wiersema, J.R. (2021). The psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on adults with autism: a survey study across three countries. Molecular Autism 12, 21.
van Ruysseveldt, J., van Dijke, M. (2011) When are workload and workplace learning opportunities related in a curvilinear manner? The moderating role of autonomy. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 79: 470-483.