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Using psychology to boost mental health

20 May 2020 By Dr Wolfgang Seidl

This Mental Health Awareness Week, improve workforce wellbeing by giving employees a sense of control, community, commitment and challenge, says Dr Wolfgang Seidl 

In Mental Health Awareness Week (18-24 May), it’s interesting to note that, according to psychological research, there are four elements we need to stay resilient. Known as the four Cs, these are our need for positive interaction with others (community), wanting to feel part of something important (commitment), the chance to stretch ourselves without feeling overwhelmed (challenge) and the need to have a sense of control over our daily lives (control).

With coronavirus forcing governments to assume control over where people work, how they socialise and even when they can and can’t leave their house, the ways in which we used to go about meeting those psychological needs is now being severely compromised. We can no longer interact with colleagues, or even family and friends, as we used to; those on furlough may feel their life is suddenly lacking in purpose, while those still in work are at risk of feeling overwhelmed, as opposed to challenged.

By considering how to use the four Cs to give people back a sense of control, community, commitment and challenge at this difficult time, employers now have a valuable role to play when it comes to protecting the mental health of the workforce. For example, by reminding people of the benefits of structuring their day for retaining a sense of control over their lives, encouraging people to still ‘meet’ for virtual coffees to sustain a sense of community, or by connecting people to a shared purpose to sustain their commitment.

This last point is particularly important, as we all have a fundamental desire to be connected to something bigger than ourselves. It’s why thousands of people are volunteering to cook meals for exhausted healthcare workers and even offering to take part in clinical trials for drugs and vaccines.

Employers that find innovative ways to connect their people to a shared purpose and invite them to rise to the challenge will not only give them a sense of direction that will protect their mental health, but also allow them to emerge stronger from the crisis as a result.

For those people struggling with financial worries, loneliness, anxiety or even domestic violence or suicidal thoughts, the crisis will have almost certainly amplified the challenges they face in potentially life-threatening ways. So remind everyone of any support services in place, including employee assistance programmes, offering confidential counselling services, and financial, debt and legal support.

As people start to grow weary and frustrated by the social distancing measures in place, it’s also important not to underestimate the importance of actively challenging our thinking, feeling and behaviour. Stoicism, an ancient Greek philosophy that can be compared to practices recommended by modern cognitive behavioural therapy, reminds us that a great part of how we feel about any situation is down to how we choose to internally process what is happening to us.

For example, a powerful exercise is to reframe the disruption caused by the coronavirus as an opportunity to reflect on your life. If your work-life balance was completely out of kilter, is now an opportunity to spend quality time with the people you live with? If you’ve allowed yourself to get into unhealthy habits, does working from home provide better opportunities to prepare more nutritious food and take exercise each day?

In thinking about how to protect the mental health of people, it’s also important to highlight the ‘happiness tools’ we can all access, such as staying connected to nature, talking about our feelings and doing things that give us joy. Encouraging employees to develop these healthy habits now will not only help them to proactively manage their wellbeing levels during and immediately beyond the current crisis, but for years to come.

Dr Wolfgang Seidl is a partner for workplace health consulting, UK and Europe, at Mercer

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