HR Management & Compliance

Remove Invisible Burdens That Are Holding Your Employees Back

Sometimes the causes of stress and burnout are obvious. A looming deadline, a sick child, or financial insecurity can all add to a person’s mental health burden. But there are other elements of our daily lives that affect mental well-being in more subtle ways.

Sensory health, which goes beyond the traditional five senses to address all aspects of how people process the world, is seldom discussed as an aspect of mental health and well-being. But the idea that our environment affects everything from mood to productivity to our thoughts and behaviors has been around for decades. Sensory health connects the concepts of sensory processing, self-regulation, and well-being, and there’s an increasing understanding that it’s closely connected to feelings of stress and burnout and a spectrum of mental health conditions.

Think, for example, about the challenge of trying to work when someone in the next cubicle is playing loud music or trying to focus when the office thermostat is set two degrees too low. While these might seem like minor annoyances most of the time, they have a cumulative effect that can dramatically alter mood, increase stress, decrease concentration, and reduce job satisfaction. In addition, sensory health may be context-dependent; a person may do just fine working in a cubicle until a deadline is looming or they haven’t gotten enough sleep because of a sick child. If employees are feeling anxious, depressed, or overwhelmed and aren’t sure why, their sensory systems may be at least part of the reason.

For employers that want to maximize performance in their workforce, paying attention to sensory health equips employees with the knowledge and resources to understand those stimuli and take steps to better manage the challenges of day-to-day life. Here are five tips to improve sensory health among your workforce and help employees become more resilient.

1. Evaluate Your Office’s Sensory Impacts

The office environment plays a meaningful role in how effective employees are at work. Employees are most engaged when all five senses are stimulated, so consider how factors such as noise levels, access to sunlight, paint colors, and even smells contribute to productivity and well-being. Fluorescent lights have been shown to increase anxiety, disorientation, and confusion, for example, and workers who sit near windows are more alert and less likely to experience eyestrain and headaches. As a result, employees may benefit from alternate light sources and seating arrangements that maximize natural light. Moreover, adding plants to the office can give employees some of the sensory benefits of being out in nature, while music with beta waves can increase focus. Finally, consider whether you can provide a dedicated place for employees to take breaks throughout the day and whether you can support those breaks by removing the pressure to respond immediately to e-mails and other messages.

This situation is more variable with remote employees, but there are still opportunities to use internal communications to educate remote workers about sensory health and give them tips for setting up a sensory-friendly workspace at home.

2. Give Employees a Break from Screens

Computer screens are a way of life in the modern workplace, but there’s also evidence that being constantly in front of a screen is bad for a person’s health. In fact, adults who watch TV or use a computer for more than 6 hours per day are more likely to experience moderate to severe depression. Meanwhile, talking face-to-face with someone has been shown to have the opposite effect, reducing levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and  increasing levels of oxytocin and dopamine, which helps people form positive relationships.

While cutting screen time more than a little may not be realistic, employers can educate their workforce on the impact of extended screen time and help them build screen breaks into their day so they can step back from their monitor, put down their phone, and refresh themselves with a walk around the office or, even better, outside.

3. Educate Employees on Sensory Impacts

One of the most significant challenges when it comes to sensory health is that most people aren’t aware of the impact their environment has on their mental health and performance. Educating employees on the concept of sensory health allows them to take steps to mitigate the effects of their office mate’s loud phone calls, the smell of someone microwaving leftovers in the break room, or the glare of fluorescent lights. If such factors can’t be avoided, show employees how to adjust their environment or their daily routine, thereby reducing negative sensory impacts and enhancing positive outcomes.

4. Introduce Mindfulness Exercises

Mindfulness is all about focusing on the present moment, which makes it a powerful resource for managing sensory input. Mindfulness exercises can make people more aware of their sensory needs, which allows them to better understand and mitigate the impact of their environment, leaving them better equipped to navigate those challenges. Even something as simple as encouraging employees to change the way they sit or take a moment to roll their shoulders, knead Play-Doh, or do exercises that involve jumping and balancing can help them refocus and block out distractions. You might also consider introducing mindfulness on a team level. Schedule occasional mindfulness breaks on the team calendar to create opportunities for practicing mindfulness together. Additionally, encourage and share ideas for mindfulness, such as breathing exercises, meditation, and digital resources that expand employee understanding of what mindfulness accomplishes and how it can be used to enhance sensory health.

5. Be Sensitive to Diverse Sensory Needs

Sensory health doesn’t affect every employee the same way. One employee may feel stressed out if their desk is cluttered, while another might flourish in such a situation. Many top performers, especially in creative fields, are particularly sensitive to sensory inputs, which may help them do well in their job while amping up their environment. In fact, research has suggested that creative people may actually be less able to filter sensory information to the point where author Marcel Proust was said to wear earplugs and have lined his bedroom with cork to muffle sound. With this in mind, understand the varied sensory needs of your workforce, and find inclusive solutions that will help each employee thrive.

There are opportunities everywhere for organizations to improve employee sensory health. When employees understand the sensory inputs that affect their day-to-day well-being, they can better deal with them, which will ultimately make them happier, healthier, and more productive in both their personal lives and their professional endeavors.

Aimee Gindin is chief marketing officer at LifeSpeak Inc. (TSX: LSPK), a whole-person well-being solution for employers, health plans, and other organizations. As a trained mental health crisis management clinician, she’s also a recognized expert, author, and speaker.

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