Prioritizing mental health in the workplace? It starts with harassment prevention

Talent leaders must protect employees from harm and embrace harassment prevention as one of the key ways this can be achieved.

Post-pandemic, mental health in the workplace has become a priority like never before – and preventing harassment is at the heart of the problem. One community-based mental health organization puts it this way: “When you’re bullied in the workplace, it makes more room for anxiety to arise. There are many anxiety disorders that people can develop over time, and many of them can affect how you function. You may have constant feelings of fear and anxiety, thoughts that something bad is going to happen soon, and an inability to work on your tasks because of these thoughts.”

According to a McKinsey study, one in three employees say that returning to work as part of the post-pandemic transition has had a negative impact on their mental health, making them anxious and depressed.

The study’s findings argue that “employers who recognize and prioritize psychological safety along with physical safety in their post-pandemic operations can help employees’ mental health and their own efforts to foster inclusive workplaces.” This support can have concrete effects on critical workplace outcomes, including employee well-being, satisfaction, productivity and absenteeism.”

A new mental health framework from the US Surgeon General

US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy agrees. Recently published The Surgeon General’s Framework for Mental Health and Well-Being in the Workplace outlines the fundamental role that workplaces should play in promoting the health and well-being of workers. “As reports of ‘quiet walkouts’ and mass resignations have shown, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the nature of work for many and the relationship some workers have with their jobs.

The Surgeon General says this framework will “It requires organizations to rethink how they protect workers from harm, foster a sense of connection among workers, show workers that they matter, give them space for their lives outside of work and support their growth.” It will be worth it, as the benefits will accrue to both workers and organizations.”

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The Framework Communication cited these startling statistics on mental health in the workplace:

The top recommendation should come as no surprise. Referred to as “damage protection”, it is described as follows:

Protection from harm: Creating conditions for physical and psychological safety is a critical foundation for ensuring mental health and well-being in the workplace. To promote practices that better protect against harm, workplaces can:

  1. Prioritize physical and psychological safety in the workplace
  2. Allow adequate rest
  3. Normalize and support by focusing on mental health
  4. Operationalize Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) norms, policies and programs

Let’s dive deeper to look at what it means to protect employees from harm and consider why harassment prevention is one of the key ways to achieve this.

How harassment prevention relates to mental health

Harm protection by its very definition requires preventing something bad from happening. That’s why it’s called harassment prevention. That means not only creating awareness of the mental health damage that harassment can do, but also taking concrete action to tackle behaviors that can ultimately lead to the legal definition of harassment – such as bullying, microaggressions (small and sometimes barbed disguised as “jokes”) and other behaviors that humiliate and minimize others.

  1. Create awareness of the effects of harassment on mental health – Basically, most people want to help others. That’s why your first step is to prioritize the physical and psychological well-being of your employees by educating them about the harm that harassment can do and by appealing to their natural instincts to protect others from harm. Consider that there is nothing more powerful than story-based learning. When people hear others talk about their experience, it broadens their perspectives and gives insight into how people can experience the same workplace in different ways.
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Action: Expose your employees to learning that shows real people sharing their personal experiences around mental health.

  1. Address the antecedents of harassment – Anxiety does not come from nowhere. Bullies often test their limits to see how far they can go. That’s why addressing precursors to harassment, such as bullying, microaggressions, sexual innuendos, is critical. Employees need to understand the nuances of misconduct and the damage it can do to the mental health of their colleagues. Key to this – they need the opportunity to see positive and negative behaviors play out and know what to do when faced with these situations in real life.

Action: Have your employees engage in interactive scenarios that guide them to make choices about how they might behave in certain situations.

  1. Make sure managers know what to look out for – Managers are your single most important audience. They are the primary organizational conduit, delivering influence in multiple directions—their team, senior leaders, and peers. They play a key role in creating a safe and inclusive environment – ensuring the psychological safety and mental health of your employees. But to do so, they must be equipped with the right strategies and tools they need to make a difference. For starters, they need guidance on how to spot signs of behavioral change in their employees. And when an employee comes to them with a concern, they should be prepared to enter the conversation believing that what they are hearing is real and must be investigated.

Action: Provide managers with education and training on issues such as intervention and retaliation. Empower them with what they need to take intentional action.

  1. Foster a culture of inclusion and belonging, from the top – Your company’s culture sets the foundation for your employees’ behavior. If employees feel protected, included and valued, this lays the foundation for trust. That trust can help employees better understand each other and see that differences are what make teams stronger and more successful. Culture change must start at the top and respectful behavior must be modeled by everyone in a leadership position. Employees will mirror that behavior and can help build an environment that supports mental health.
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Action: Encouraging commitment and responsibility of the leader/manager. Help them cultivate a sense of empathy and put them at the center of creating a safe and inclusive workplace.

  1. Prioritize mental health and harassment prevention through policies and processes – All your efforts and best intentions to create a culture of psychological safety and mental health for your employees can crumble without additional policies and procedures. Consider a manager who does not have the flexibility to provide time off for an employee during a stressful time in their life, or a workplace with such rigid standards and high demands that the employee’s work/life balance is seriously compromised.

Action: Review all policies and procedures and adjust areas that do not support the safety and well-being of your employees.

Finally, think back to your own experiences of how it feels to be in an organization that sees you as more than a source of monetization. Look back at those times when you felt appreciated, understood, and valued as a human being. How did that make you feel? Has it made you want to work harder to support the organization’s mission? Has it made you more focused and engaged in your work? While research shows statistics about the importance of mental health in the workplace, your own experiences will empower you with the commitment, time and energy you’ll need to make your plans a reality.

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