The Power of Small Changes Toward Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace

How employees can influence better mental health through a bottom-up approach.
Verity International
May 12, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in unprecedented changes in the workplace. How the work is done has changed, as well as workplace relationships and workplace communication. It’s unclear for how long this will continue, or what changes will be permanent. What is clear is that more than ever, employers need to practice psychological health and safety with employees, to help them through the pandemic and to continue to engage them for business continuity and recovery. Employee investment can be the make-or-break of recovery success.

The key can be found in small day-to-day practice, not in sweeping top-down visions. Keys include: staying in touch, speaking authentically, providing support and encouraging self care, providing clarity of task and access to resources. In other words, continuing to focus on the elements of a psychologically healthy and safe workplace while applying them to the unique circumstances of the pandemic and social isolation.

A top-down approach to build a new workplace mental health infrastructure might not be the primary focus for organizations at this point in time, but there are other ways for employees to continue coming together and take small steps towards better mental health for the overall work environment. It is time to recognize how we can change the norms of psychological health and safety in the workplace from the bottom up. Rensia Melles, a workplace mental health consultant, talks about the power of small changes we can infuse into our daily routine that will ultimately create a more significant impact on the mental wellbeing of individuals in the organization.

Understanding your organization

Bottom-up change is not a novel concept, but it is one that employees can leverage to kick-start organization-wide change.  Rather than wait for a top-down vision for change initiatives, change can be made in day-to-day practice, creating improvements for workers and ripple effects that will encourage others to follow suit. The impact of small changes helps make the business case to leadership to incorporate psychological health and safety into business decisions.

Before you can implement changes to help shift the organization towards psychological health and safety, you will need to look at the individual components of a healthy workplace, such as respect, support, clarity, influence, and engagement. Examine the elements that make up the culture of the organization and influence behaviours across the board. A productive method to get the information you’re looking for is to have open conversations with your peers and ask relevant questions:

  1. What skills do we need to develop in building a foundation for psychological health and safety at work? (This can include respectful communication, accountability, empathy, and the ability to modulate self and emotions)
  2. What do we need to learn? (This can include understanding mental health and its long-term impacts, knowledge of the company and its positioning on the matter)
  3. What attitude changes will support our efforts? (For example: being more open and embracing new ideas)

Examining the data

To make these small steps towards change, look beneath the surface and analyze the data. Looking at the following information will help you identify the problem areas within your organization.

Understanding and benchmarking internal data:

  • Absenteeism
  • Complaints and grievances
  • Turnover
  • Recruitment time and challenges to fill a position
  • Exit interviews
  • Direct and indirect costs of absenteeism or turnover
  • Employee satisfaction survey

Understanding and benchmarking third-party partner data:

  • Disability statistics
  • Health insurance statistics
  • EAP statistics
  • Industry trends 

Exploring open data:

  • Gossip
  • Company reputation
  • Relationships 

Collecting this information and benchmarking across departments and teams helps determine areas of concern as well as areas of strength. What is the difference between a team with low absenteeism and turnover and a team with high absenteeism and turnover? How can you use this information to support your peers?

Implementing the small changes

The issue of mental health can feel overwhelming once you have looked at the data. But, by starting small, you can make an impact. Using the data you have collected, find out what you can learn and leverage from departments that are showing well. At the same time, it will help you determine where the most significant gaps are: these are the hotspots where change needs to start. To set your advocacy strategy in motion:

  • Communicate to raise awareness (staying within the realm of company confidentiality, share with your peers the statistics, reports, and other information you have learned).
  • Use “nudging” to encourage departments or teams that are performing poorly. Providing them with benchmark data of how other teams are doing on mental health can encourage the poorly-performing groups to seek out solutions and strengthen relevant skills.
  • Speak at company-organized town halls to raise psychological health and safety awareness as a business factor.
  • Piggyback on public campaigns for health and awareness and encourage others on your team to do so as well.
  • Communicate frequently and transparently about the ongoing changes in your company by participating and staying visible (company policies, internal bulletin boards, etc.).
  • Leverage the organization’s internal and external platforms to endorse mental health and self-care (internal health and wellness site, social media campaigns, public events and on the agenda of team meetings).
  • Build an internal and external support group with like-minded peers to develop ideas and strategies.

It is the small changes that help build a more significant case for your organization to implement psychological health and safety practices and policies.

Rensia Melles is a certified Psychological Health and Safety advisor and founder of Integral Workplace Health. She is a passionate advocate for mental health in the workplace and is always happy to answer questions. 

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