Mental Wellness – the What, Why and How?

The Cambridge Dictionary puts out a regular blog where it lists new words or phrases that their team have recently observed in either the written or spoken form. In their blog of the 28th June 2021, they listed the following words:

  • Lockdown foot [noun]
    a condition resulting from someone having spent lockdown at home in bare feet or slippers, allowing their feet to change shape and making it difficult or painful to wear normal shoes again
  • Bungalow leg [noun]
    a condition where the leg muscles have become weak through living in a single-storey house and not having to climb stairs
  • Headline stress disorder [noun]
    a feeling of stress and anxiety caused by reading or watching a lot of negative or worrying news

It’s probably self-evident that these words would not be there if not for the current pandemic that is ravaging the world and while something like ‘bungalow leg’ or ‘lockdown foot’ may seem fairly harmless, they are perhaps a sign, together with ‘headline stress disorder’, of a deeper, far more serious issue – that of mental and physical wellness. Much has been written of the mental health pandemic that is accompanying the viral pandemic and while studies about the full impact of Covid19 are yet to be finalised, we already know that most people have had their mental health impacted in some way. Increases in depression, anxiety and stress are the most common elements that have shown up since the discovery of the virus and entry into our first hard lockdown, just over a year ago. As humans, we are hard-wired to be alert to threats, both real and perceived, and once something out of the ordinary is noticed, the body initiates a stress response. This is usually a good thing as it allows us to take whatever action is necessary to alleviate that stress and once done, our body returns to its normal, resting state. When we’re up against something that we cannot control however, like the pandemic, our body remains in the stress mode and being constantly in a state of high alert can lead to a negative impact on our mental and physical health.

But what exactly is mental health and why should we be taking it seriously?  

According to the experts, to be mentally healthy means we are thriving and not just surviving. We are flourishing with high levels of emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. When we are in this state, we are able to be our most productive and innovative and our ability to connect, collaborate and communicate is enhanced. Conversely, when we are not thriving or flourishing, we start to withdraw as we become preoccupied with our own anxieties and stresses. This has huge considerations for our ability to be effective at work as well as in our personal life. With the increasing number of demands that people have been experiencing due to the pandemic and working from home, burnout has become a reality for many. Burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion and used to be primarily the domain of those individuals who worked in highly pressurised environments. However, isolation in homes and lack of social interactions with colleagues, coupled with a feeling of being unable to control our environment, has contributed to the rising numbers of burnout in employees.

So what can be done?

From an organisational point of view, it is critical that leaders and managers create psychologically safe working environments. Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School defines a safe environment as one where one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up and asking questions, raising concerns or coming up with ideas. It also means an environment where people can safely ask for help or share their struggles, without be labelled as weak or ineffective. Good leaders and managers should be checking in continually with their staff to find out how they are doing at any given time and where on the surviving – thriving continuum they find themselves.

No matter how good our leaders and managers are, however, it’s important that we take responsibility for our own mental health, as ultimately no-one will ever know exactly what we’re thinking and feeling unless we speak up.

With recent research showing that in order for people and organisations to be mentally fit and agile, resources need to be deliberately built. To this end, a team of psychologists and coaches from Factor10, in partnership with a South African law firm, conducted a coaching series with a focus on leading for mental health. This included developing ways to build resilience, understanding, and accepting, what can be controlled, as well as finding and building internal and external resources to deal with stress. Collaborating with talent practitioners and line leaders, Factor10’s coaching intervention equipped them with skills to confidently and ethically navigate mental health red flags, create psychologically safe environments, and importantly, build trust and deep relationships with employees and key stakeholders in an organisation.

A mentally fit organisation is one where employees know that they can trust their employers and are free to talk about their mental health challenges. They know that they won’t be judged, but rather supported and assisted back to full mental wellness. Mental Health Awareness month is observed in the USA every May and in South Africa, every October. In fact, just about every country in the world observes a Mental Health Awareness month as some stage during the year, which confirms just how prevalent mental health issues have become. However, a month-long focus on mental wellbeing and fitness isn’t enough and mental health awareness shouldn’t be a monthly event, but rather ingrained in an organisation’s culture because organisations are only as healthy as their employees.


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