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Mindful Approaches to Workplace Wellness

Oct. 15, 2021
Employers are ramping up mental health awareness programs as they cope with pandemic-related stress.

Jacob Aqua and Marshall Kupka-Moore begin every meeting with a breathing exercise. During our Zoom call, he led a brief guided meditation, asking us to close our eyes and take a few deep breaths.

“We start our meetings with a little bit of centering into the space that we can all arrive at and fully be present for the work,” Aqua explains after the short session.

Aqua and Kupka-Moore are co-founders of Source Wellness, an organization that helps businesses develop mental health programs focused on mindfulness techniques. As EHS Today research shows, more companies are incorporating stress-reduction practices, such as mindfulness and yoga, into their corporate health programs to address employee wellness.

Nearly one-third of employers responding to the EHS Today Mental Health in the Workplace 2021 survey conducted earlier this year say they offer meditation, mindfulness or yoga programs at their company. The pandemic has many companies rethinking the importance of mental health as part of their overall wellness programs.

“One thing the pandemic did was it broadened the definition of mental health,” says Aaron Harvey, who founded a mental health advocacy group called Made of Millions.

In the past, mental health was primarily recognized as diagnosed conditions, such as depression, but it may also encompass other emotional issues and life-changing events, such as grief, stress and divorce, Harvey says.

Creating Awareness

Harvey started Made of Millions in 2016 after struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder while working as the owner of an ad agency. It took him nearly 30 years of suffering before he knew his diagnosis. He would like to see the workplace fill a gap in health education.

“If we are able to use the corporation as a device or distribution vehicle to give people the psychoeducation that they need to better understand what’s going on, they can then better navigate a very broken healthcare system,” he says.

Harvey also serves as an advisor for Mind Together, a coalition of brands led by Verizon Media working to address mental health and set a new standard in how employees are supported at work. The growth in mental health awareness in the corporate world is more evident since the pandemic, says Dr. Michelle Riba, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan and codirector of workplace mental health solutions at the school’s Eisenberg Family Depression Center.

“We recently had a major conference on this topic, with over 300 attendees throughout the country and Canada from employers small and large, and mental health is clearly a growing and major issue for the workplace and all ages and genders,” she says.

When it comes to addressing mental health in the workplace, employers need to create an environment where workers are comfortable talking about it, experts say. One participant in the EHS Today survey wrote, “Employees are depressed, and issues are never addressed in time. There are no clear communication lines between management and staff.” Harvey says employers must go beyond sloganeering to foster a culture of mental health awareness.

“It can’t just be like, ‘Hey, we understand mental health is tough; if you’re struggling reach out to us,’” he says. “You have to do the work behind the scenes first, having strategic alignment with the management team, HR team and even the legal team, and then going out and messaging it.”

More Relaxed, More Productive

Technology is one way employers can encourage staff to manage stress and keep tabs on their mental health. For example, Insight Timer is an app that sends reminders to perform breathing exercises at regular intervals, says Aqua, whose title at Source Wellness is chief mindfulness officer.

“Everyone has time to take deep breaths because we have to breathe throughout the day,” he says. “It’s not like you’re taking time off breathing when you’re working.”

Calm is another meditation app that employers can distribute to employees, Riba notes. Calm offers a business-specific plan that employers can purchase. Other educational tools include webinars or lectures from mental health professionals, she says.

While employers have ethical reasons to address mental health, it also has an impact on their bottom line.

“It’s very expensive for employers to have to fill positions and we know that we’re seeing many service industries are hurting very badly because they don’t have enough employees,” Riba says. “So it’s very important to think about not only recruitment but retention, and part of that is they’re learning many Millennials, for example, are looking at jobs and asking about whether or not there are mental health days, and asking very important questions about this topic.”

Kupka-Moore explains that many large, multinational companies are incorporating mindfulness programs into their organizations because they recognize the productivity benefits.

“We’re starting to realize that our mental health heavily impacts our physical health, and our mental and physical health together very heavily impact our productivity,” says Kupka-Moore, CEO of Source Wellness. “Once people can see there is a very, very clear connection between the amount of money you can make and the amount of effectiveness you can derive from mindfulness, it’s going to be impossible for them not to take on that approach.”

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