Why Workplaces Need to get Better at Mental Health

It was a horrible, drizzly December day when I first walked into the GP’s surgery, knowing that something wasn’t right, but not really sure what it was.

It was Christmas party season and I should’ve been in the swing of it, excited about catching up with friends and family and looking forward to my favourite holiday of the year; the one when you can truly switch off from everything.

But I wasn’t.

I hadn’t felt this low in years.

I’d recently gone through a relationship break-up and I knew that was part of the cause, but I’d been through this before and back then I’d been able to pull myself out of the fog for some of the time I was experiencing it… This time I couldn’t.

The doctor heard me out and offered some possible options.

Firstly the chemical route; tempting, a quick fix (what I needed given the hectic Christmas schedule) and secondly, a potential long term solution; an app called Headspace, which you might have heard of, but at the time was news to me.

I must admit, I picked both options.

But under some firm encouragement from my GP (and I’ll be forever in debt for this) I resolved to make a go of this mindfulness and meditation thing.

And when I did, my life started to change for the better.

I wasn’t taking the medication for very long, as the positive effects of the daily mindfulness practice were so remarkable I just didn’t need to.

In so many different areas of my life I was seeing improvements and benefits.

I felt content.

I had improved concentration.

I was more alert.

I slept better.

I was a (slightly) better person to be around.

I still had my moments, but I almost forgot what anxiety felt like.

All this for just 20 mins of my time each day! I couldn’t believe my luck.

Yet there was still one problem…

I felt the effects most powerfully if I did it EVERY day.

Without a regular routine with daily meditation, the potency of the effects was about 50% lower.

So why not just make more of an effort to do it every day?

Life gets in the way.

Early morning meetings.

A hangover after a work social.

Just feeling a bit too tired some mornings.

And unless I practiced in the morning, there was no other chance to do it for the rest of the day.

Because the majority of workplaces just aren’t set up to make mindfulness or meditation accessible.

The options for most people who miss out on their morning meditation boil down to;

-group classes (which are great, but are often at inconvenient times, and can be expensive)

-the tube (possible, but not if you don’t get a seat or have someone’s elbow digging your ribs)

-a park bench (not ideal with the erratic English climate, and hard to truly switch off when strangers are around you)

-the office toilet, which is where I finally cracked – with the person in the cubicle next to me doing their utmost to pull me out of my zen state via their multi-sensorial bombardment – and decided something needs to be done about this: why is there nowhere else I can do this in peace?

And there still doesn’t seem to be.

In fact only 9% of the 3 billion-plus global workers have access to some type of workplace wellness program at their jobs*.

A pretty shocking state of affairs.

So here I am, sharing my own experiences in the hope that HR teams, managing partners, CEOs and the Chief Happiness Officers of this world might take note and make change.

The benefits would be vast if mindfulness and meditation were made more accessible by providing access to better spaces in which to practice them.

Even if this is hard to achieve (as may be the case with small companies) then simply encouraging your workforce to take time out of the office will have a big impact and could be especially beneficial to those who haven’t tried meditation or mindfulness yet, if they know it’s permissible to do so.

That’s not to say that everyone’s going to get into a lotus pose, switch off and be zombies for the rest of the day…

Quite the opposite.

I’ve heard about the free market and this dog eat dog world: competition in the globalised economy is fierce and we all have to be on our game to survive.

Studies have actually shown that meditation and mindfulness can improve productivity and creativity as well as foster less emotionally based decision making.

And yet although this is increasingly accepted, how many workplaces make it accessible – culturally or via providing dedicated spaces – to take 20 mins out without feeling guilty or self conscious?

The evidence is there to show that not only will you be creating a calmer, happier workplace, you’ll be creating a team of efficient, productive dynamos who without breaking into a sweat can organise their days to get more done, and actually enjoy their job at the same time.

We all have to put in a shift every now and again, that won’t change, but it doesn’t always have to be about grinding everyone into the ground to get ahead, and when we do have to go up the gears, we’ll be better prepared to do so if we’re in a good head-space.

Attitudes towards working culture need to change.

Not just for our own health but for our economy to be equipped for the coming decades of massive technological change. Times where we will need super productive, emotionally intelligent, problem solvers and leaders to be the best versions of themselves they can be.

Some forward thinking companies are putting this into practice already**.

How are you going to create smarter, more human working cultures for all?

(Mindful) thoughts welcome.

#vivalaquietrevolution

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I’m sure I’m not the first to write an article about this (and I’m only skimming the surface of the very broad topic of mental health and stress) so hopefully you are already thinking about how you can help yourself/your workforce, but if not and anyone would like to talk about this more I would love to hear their views and perhaps in some way help to make access to better mental health, better.

*Global Wellness Institute Report

**Innovative examples of this would be http://www.metronaps.com/ pods which are famously used in Google offices, or the custom built https://www.headspace.com/blog/2016/02/18/introducing-headspace-meditation-pods-making-the-invisible-visible/, but ultimately a small room with a level of privacy is all that’s required.

Even just permitting employees to leave the office for 20 mins to find their own head space will pay dividends for all concerned.  

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