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Emotional health in the workplace

Peter Leonard, Centre for Emotional Health

Most of us spend significant amounts of time in our workplaces – often spending more hours in the day with our colleagues than with the people we live with. In addition, our identity is often inextricably linked with our job and our career. As such, the environment and the culture of our workplaces is of paramount importance. In terms of benefits for the organisation and its employees and their families, an emotionally healthy workplace is crucial.

So, what actually is emotional health and what does an emotionally healthy workplace look like?

Our emotional health is the set of skills and beliefs we have that influence the way we think, feel and behave. Good emotional health enables us to navigate the ups and downs of everyday life and to manage the relationships we have with those around us.

Having good emotional health can be a strong protective factor against mental ill health further down the line. An example of this might be people developing skills and strategies to manage their own stress in a way that minimises negative longer-term consequences. In a workplace context, all of this can have a huge positive impact on individual wellbeing, performance, team dynamics, absenteeism, staff retention and customer service.

An emotionally healthy workplace is one where there is a culture of people feeling safe, supported and valued, where there is a clear sense of purpose, where people feel empowered and where there are clear expectations and boundaries. There will also be key features such as respect, empathy, kindness and an understanding of the value that differences bring.

We know that the more businesses are able to offer a strong sense of focus, purposefulness and clarity of roles and tasks to all staff, then this will enhance individual and organisational emotional health. Probably most importantly, the environment will be one where relationships really matter.

An emotionally healthy workplace culture enables staff to manage their work-life balance and their relationships with others in a way that meets both individual and organisational needs. This has positive benefits not just in the way that people are able to do their job but also in the way that they are able to live their home lives, be a parent to their children and look after their families.

When it comes to creating emotionally healthy workplaces, there is a need to go deeper than offering free yoga sessions or wellbeing hours. It is the more foundational habits and structures that create a genuine emotionally healthy environment. For example, it means creating a culture whereby colleagues hold each other in mind as individuals who have lives both inside and outside of work (How was that meeting yesterday? Good luck with your training tomorrow! Did you enjoy your holiday?), noticing and responding to how colleagues seem to be, interacting with each other in meaningful way that is helpful to both the organisation and individuals. Building on these foundations, businesses can build in time for self-reflection, put in place support for employees to learn how to manage emotions that they might struggle with at work, and promote employee autonomy.

These are some of the practical ways in which businesses can start to think about developing and sustaining an emotionally healthy workplace environment. The challenge for us all is that it is far easier and less time-consuming to book in a pizza for staff meetings than it is to spend the time required to foster healthy relationships and to be tuned in to people’s needs and emotions – even when we know that it’s this that makes the difference.

This all matters because workplaces are ultimately about people. The saying “your most valuable resources are your people” is a cliché but it’s a cliché for a very good reason – and getting the “people” bit right significantly increases the chances of achieving the outcomes highlighted above. An approach based on good emotional health can ensure that both organisational and individual needs are recognised and valued and crucially that workplaces and employees can be good for each other.

At the Centre for Emotional Health, we know that by working with organisations to understand the ways in which we relate to one another, we can identify and develop new habits of relating which lead to culture change. We co-create safe, non-judgemental spaces where people can explore new ways of relating so that they can feel the difference and understand the impact it has on them and their organisation. Once this change happens, everyone feels the shared responsibility to maintain this new culture.