We don’t need to define the concept of “mental health” anymore. Internet searches for help and assistance with it were one of the most talked-about trends of 2021, and that trend hasn’t abated. The COVID pandemic shone a much-deserved spotlight on the issue, however overdue it might have seemed. As our society comes to terms with the changes wrought by the disease and the disruption it brought with it, employers have begun taking more responsibility for the role that work, and the workplace, plays in the overall health and wellness of their employees. As those same employers respond to the ethical imperative to provide their employees with a healthy workplace, technology solutions are emerging to help them achieve those goals.
Mental Health in the Workplace
In any discussion of workplace mental health, it’s important to clearly set the parameters of the conversation. What we do at work, and what work can do for us, is only one piece of the puzzle, albeit a significant one; we spend so much of our lives working that satisfaction with our jobs—or a lack thereof—is a major force in adults’ overall emotional well-being. It’s valid to ask whether Americans work too much and are too focused on work, but that’s an issue for another time. For the sake of exploring the technology helping us manage those working hours, we need to take it as a given that we do work and we always will and that the environment in which we accomplish that work, perhaps as much as the nature of the work itself, has a direct impact on our mental health.
In other words, we must first accept the need to work, then accept that the workplace should be somewhere we enjoy doing that work. This is hardly a new concept. As a college student from a working-class family, I spent my summers doing general physical labor in a meat-packing plant. The work itself was more demanding than most of my peers at school would have been comfortable with—heavy lifting in chilled coolers, cleaning meat byproducts off machinery and floors, and slinging the equivalent of a pair of 30-pound dumbbells in and out of boiling water for hours at a time. But one thing made it more tolerable: a radio.
The simple addition of music to the workplace made everything better. Though I was never a fan of classic rock before this, I found new joy in rocking out with the likes of Boston and the Steve Miller Band because they broke up the hard tasks and gave me a rhythm to perform them to. Also—and this is important—following the tone set by our plant manager, my coworkers were often cheerful, positive guys, quick to crack a joke or tell a story to make the day go by more easily. Those guys might find the word amusing, but in today’s parlance, our workplace culture was a supportive one.
Work as A Potential Stressor
Professional workplaces and their associated stressors might seem significantly more complex to some than the physical tasks a general laborer would undertake in the meat-packing industry of the early 90s, but here’s the thing: That’s an arrogant fallacy of our culture. The simple truth is that work—any sort of work—is a potential stressor to the person performing it. The workplace—any workplace—is the environment where it gets done, and that workplace can either help or hinder the human worker and the work itself. Culture provides the emotional environment, the human soul of the workplace, from the factory or warehouse floor to the finance office or the ether of a virtual meeting room.
What we lost for so long was the deus ex machina, the device that transformed a difficult workplace into a place that gives us a sense of accomplishment or purpose. That’s right. In our white-collar, professional world, as the pandemic hit and existential concerns overwhelmed us, we kept on trying to do our work and maintain our physical cultures in a digital environment without the aid of our former coping methods. We lost our platonic radios, and our collective mental health issues burgeoned into a full-blown societal crisis.
Leveraging New Tools and Embracing Cultural Shifts
Employers need new tools to succeed in this new world. Those that make the best use of those new tools will be the organizations the best people want to work for—and to be one of those organizations, you need the culture in place to make the tools successful.
A corporation can only do so much for the mental health of the people who work there. What an employer can do—what the ethical employer must do—is take steps to ensure that, within reason, employees’ work and their work environment do not create or contribute to a mental health crisis. This is difficult, to be sure. Our work, for many of us, has the potential to be one of the greatest stressors in our adult lives. There is no silver bullet.
Taken together with a genuine commitment to a positive, inclusive, and empowering culture, however, solutions to help employees manage the hours they spend working are emerging as a powerful tool in the fight for mental and emotional health in modern society. The best widely available example of this today might be Viva Insights by Microsoft®, bringing a varied set of features and functions to the widely used Teams platform that most large enterprises are now using for their virtual meetings, chats, and collaborative documents and even to link multiple physical locations.
A quick look at even a basic Viva Insights dashboard immediately reveals no less than five separate tools meant to assist in fostering employee well-being. Without customization or targeting, you can find the ability to take a guided deep breathing session, respond to a prompt for self-reflection, engage in a short meditation via Headspace, send valuable praise to colleagues, and block time on your calendar for uninterrupted focus. More options are available to leaders interacting with their teams, checking in on frequency of communication, and helping push back on micromanaging to give people a better chance to accomplish the work they’re trusted to get done. Still relatively new in the marketplace, the power of a solution like Insights to help humans feel more at peace throughout their workday—whether working from an office, from home, or from one of the many in-between states more and more people are choosing—provides a heady option for employers looking to embed the values of a caring culture.
Yes, culture. Even if technology like Insights becomes fully embraced and adopted by organizations, the role of corporate culture cannot be understated. The best digital solutions are nothing but shelfware when they lack a cultural impetus for their use. What good is a widget encouraging you to take a short break and breathe deeply in the face of an overbearing manager demanding those TPS reports get done on Saturday? Very little, admittedly. Just rolling out a shiny new solution is never enough. But taken as the practical actualization of a genuine organizational commitment to an empowering, supportive culture, a technology solution’s impact is supercharged. When the impulse to do the right thing for your people becomes an organizational imperative, a platform like Viva Insights becomes a powerful tool for the health of colleagues across the company.
Rich Wood is an educator, a communicator, and a technology strategist. His analysis, observations, and predictions on the role of technology in business and popular culture have been published in CMSWire and various industry blogs. A longtime consultant on enterprise communication and collaboration platforms, Wood has been leading the Microsoft business for Rightpoint, Microsoft’s 2022 US Partner of the Year for Employee Experience, since 2017.