What would a good workplace for mental health look like in practice?
May 1, 2018 2:47 PM   Subscribe

When I've read about this, it seems to usually be at the level of platitudes and "awareness". I'm interested in resources and anecdata about what a workplace that dealt super-well with employee mental health would look like, beyond offering good insurance (which is huge).
posted by ITheCosmos to Work & Money (25 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Off the top of my head: one that recognizes that "mental health days" (a phrase I think a lot of us use jokingly because they're not a thing) are a valid use of sick days. Mental health days is probably a bad name for this, as I'm not talking about taking time off necessarily for, you know, major depression or something, but the ability to take a day off because you're just not at your best that day would do a lot for most people's overall well being/mental health on a sub-diagnostic level, I think.
posted by Smearcase at 3:08 PM on May 1, 2018 [13 favorites]

Possibly I just mean "more time off with fewer stated or implicit strictures."
posted by Smearcase at 3:09 PM on May 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: (I should add: responses don't have to be something you've actually experienced or known to exist in a real workplace, cool ideas, small or wildly idealistic, about how we could do better at this are entirely welcome. Happy May Day everyone, a better world is possible!)
posted by ITheCosmos at 3:14 PM on May 1, 2018 [7 favorites]

Single data-point: one that provides noise cancelling headphones.
posted by jeffamaphone at 3:22 PM on May 1, 2018 [5 favorites]

Oh, actually, sort of building on what jeffamaphone said: lack of cubicles. Cubicle farms are the pinnacle of management as sadism.
posted by Smearcase at 3:30 PM on May 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

I work in an office environment. This article about a supervisor's response to a mental health day request made the rounds on social media last year. To add to it, I've really appreciated having supervisors who are accommodating in terms of work hours and location, and who also model good work-life balance practices (i.e. no sending/responding to evening or weekend emails unless they are emergencies, etc.)
posted by betafilter at 3:38 PM on May 1, 2018 [7 favorites]

I think "mental health" might be too broad, because a workplace that's very good for an anxious person might be lousy for a person with bipolar. I have some sensory processing stuff such that if I have to concentrate on something else while listening to someone else's loud-ass one-sided phone conversation, I'm going to have a panic attack. Thus, open-plan offices are pretty terrible for me. (I don't think anyone likes open-plan offices, and I think they're actually bad for a lot of people mental-health-wise, but most people can cope with them much better than I can.)

To throw out some specifics:

Calm, low-key, supportive management styles: not "I don't care if you slack off" but "I can help you figure out what support you need so that you can actually get this work done." (It should go without saying that managers shouldn't be abusive and yell at you, but from reading AskMe, dang but there are a lot of abusive managers.)

Managers and coworkers who treat needing mental health support as something normal and not shameful and who are willing to give people space if they need to go cry, walk off a panic attack, etc. Managers who are willing to schedule people in a way that lets them ACTUALLY GO TO THERAPY.

Managers and coworkers who back each other up in stressful situations and TRAIN YOU HOW TO DEAL WITH THEM both practically and emotionally - I worked a lot in library public service, and you're going to get sexually harassed, you're going to get yelled at by patrons, you're going to have to kick people out for masturbating. Good training and good coworker support can make that 75% less traumatic than dealing with the same situations with bad training and nonexistent coworker support.

Flexibility in arranging your work space - there are little things that can make a big difference. Some people get anxious if the side of their chair isn't up against the wall, some people get anxious if their back is facing empty space. Fluorescent lights and office noise can be hard to deal with. Smells can be hard to deal with.

Managers who don't micromanage and who MAKE IT CLEAR that they have no intention of micromanaging - I spent three or four years in my last job feeling like I had to sneak around when I needed to spend some time in the dark meeting room in the basement, before I figured out that my manager genuinely didn't GAF because he trusted me to do what I needed to do.

Office cultures that make room for people who don't all adhere to the same norms around friendliness and office socializing. In customer service positions, my lunch break is Sacred Alone Time For Recharging - I do much better in workplaces that make room for this than treat me as a mean and unfriendly person because I don't want to eat while making conversation with my coworkers.

While I'm asking for all this, I may as well ask for a pony therapy dog?
posted by Jeanne at 4:05 PM on May 1, 2018 [11 favorites]

definitely, avoiding open space work arrangements.

a culture that doesn't expect email to be answered after hours.
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:34 PM on May 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

Oh, actually, sort of building on what jeffamaphone said: lack of cubicles. Cubicle farms are the pinnacle of management as sadism.

Someone hasn't worked in an open office. I'd love a cube.

Seriously, though, being able to work from home occasionally is good, if you're talking about the sort of job that can be done from home.
posted by madcaptenor at 4:37 PM on May 1, 2018 [11 favorites]

My husband worked in management for a union shop, and the union was super-strict about policing management sticking to its 8-hour days ... because if management was contracted for 7.5 hours (plus a 30-minute lunch) but got in the habit of working 10 hours, they'd start to expect the same sort of off-book hours inflation from union employees. (These were salaried, not hourly, union employees.)

It. Was. Glorious. It got to be 5 p.m., you went home. You (as management) had to attend an evening work event for 3 hours? You took your three hours comp time by the end of the month or the union grieved you. When you were at work, you were at work; when you were done, you were done. It didn't follow him around all day every day. He was way, way more productive because he wasn't burnt out and exhausted all the time. The other people on the management team were similarly relaxed, engaged, and enthusiastic about their jobs, because they got to go home.

It made a huge difference that someone was actually policing their hours, so it wasn't just like someone saying, "Oh, sure, we like you to have a good work-life balance and go home at 5" which everyone proceeds to ignore or the one super-inflationary dude screws up for everyone else; it was "Hey, Joe, you worked 10 hours yesterday, so you're going to need to take 2 hours off as comp time before the end of the month, or we're going to file a grievance."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:40 PM on May 1, 2018 [34 favorites]

Things my office has allowed me to do that have been beneficial:

1. No questions about my twice weekly appointments that last exactly 50 minutes (or 80 minutes, with commute built in). No push back about when they might end or whether it's necessary.

2. An understanding that visible tasks will take me 4x a normal person, without imputing that I'm slow or incompetent at other tasks. This didn't happen at my last job, where my director said I wasn't allowed to handle the parts of my job I'm excellent at until I mastered the tasks that triggered my anxiety and executive functions. It was a bad fit, but really convinced me I was a bad employee.

3. Functioning management - Don't hire or promote based on people's ability to market themselves. Take time to understand people's biases about their self assessment and take that into account. While that's just good business sense, it's so important for people who's self talk is always critical or otherwise unreliable.

4. Flexibility about ways of working. My anxiety and ADHD make me prone to both insomnia and hyperfocus. That means I'll stumble on a fix right as I'm trying to fall asleep, and it's beneficial to capture that. It also means I'm usually a terrible employee before 10am. By allowing me to come in late and have work-day appointments on a regular basis, I'm able to keep a decent work/life balance despite after-hours work.

These are all things that could easily be abused by an unscrupulous employee. And I'm often so grateful that I have the trust of my employer that I'm not using this to be a giant slacker. But it's not genuine gratitude. It's really fear that if this job falls apart, I won't be able to find this again because we've set up our society to not value my work because my mental health conditions are seen as a net cost to an employer.
posted by politikitty at 4:43 PM on May 1, 2018 [8 favorites]

Basecamp's Signal v. Noise blog has a lot of stuff that's not exactly about mental health, but close enough that it will probably be of interest to you. Basecamp's founders are currently writing a book based on some of the stuff on the blog called "The Calm Company" that I'm impatiently waiting for.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:09 PM on May 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Access to fresh air, a view, windows that open, nature.
posted by MountainDaisy at 5:10 PM on May 1, 2018 [6 favorites]

I will tell you the things about my current job that have been phenomenal for my mental health - with the caveat that everyone's needs are different, of course. I work at a job that can be emotionally draining in many ways, high stress at times, and that has a variety of activities expected from my role.

One of the biggest is that I create my own schedule - I am required to work 37 hours per week (according to my employment agreement) but I can decide when those hours will happen. If I work more than 37 hours, I simply take that number of hours off (as lieu time) whenever I am able to do so. I choose what my days look like - what time I start, what time I finish, whether I work on the weekend, etc. The only required work time is a weekly staff meeting - everything else just depends on what I need to accomplish that week.

We have a dog at the office - she hangs out at reception most days. We can bring our own dogs to the office, too, if we supervise them well and they're not disruptive (none of us do, though, because most of us don't spend much time in one place during the work day). It's nice to go pet a dog - or take her for a quick walk - when I need a break.

I can choose where I work - home, office, other place. Again, as long as my job is getting done, no one is concerned with where I am doing it. I can move around during the day - start at home, go to the office later.

My office has a lot of bright, natural light. I have 4 windows within my control (open! closed! blinds up! blinds down!) and I can set the heat/air conditioning in my office myself. As someone who hates unnatural light when working and who prefers to be cooler in temperature, this is heaven. I have free-reign to decorate as I like - which includes plants and weird photos and posters and random toys all over the place.

There is a fridge, well-stocked coffee/tea (free), microwave, and an actual oven in the kitchen - we can use any of it. We get lunches provided once in a while. There are often snacks around. Once a week many of us have dinner together (we work later in the evening).

My vacation time is essentially unlimited. My agreement says 4 weeks, and that doesn't include the 2 weeks at Christmas, but I am encouraged to take time off whenever I feel that I need it. Part of it is to avoid burn-out, the other is to encourage self-care. My employer, as an individual, really values that balance for himself - so he passes it along.

I have unlimited sick days, within reason. Part of that is because I work for a physician, part of it is that some of our clients have compromised immune systems, and part of it is just the practicality of it all. On days when I feel cruddy but not terrible, I often just work from home.

All our staff is strongly encouraged to create new projects for themselves, take classes, use their strengths - - just grow, in general, whenever possible. We all have our roles, of course, but it's so nice to be able to do MORE whenever the urge strikes. I have essentially completely changed my own role since I started there 7-ish years ago - which keeps me interested in the job.

And last, but not least, I work (mostly) with an AMAZING group of people who are committed to the same outcomes that I am. There are people on the team that I don't see often, or with whom I am not close, but the rest of us are like a family (complete with the occasional dysfunction). That makes a HUGE difference in my mental health - being accepted as myself.
posted by VioletU at 5:25 PM on May 1, 2018 [13 favorites]

People trained in mental health first aid. Security staff trained in de- escalation techniques.
Access to online or telephone therapy from work for a quick 15 minute "I'm freaking out help me" session.
Not considering criminal background in the hiring process, as serious mental illness is a major cause of incarceration in the US.
Affordable on site child care.
More training and re- training and longer improvement timelines for when workers are not performing.
Locating their businesses in towns with rich resources and advocating for community mental health services to be well funded.
More supervision of managers in terms of how they manage not just in terms of product pushed out.
A CEO dashboard that includes quality of management and quality of co- worker relationships
A chapel and meditation space
Lots of nature and plants
posted by SyraCarol at 6:12 PM on May 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

360 degree appraisals and a culture that makes it safe to honestly appraise your management
32 hour work week
Flex time without a thousand forms to use it
Working from home when sick but still functional
posted by crunchy potato at 6:28 PM on May 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky dives into this for nonprofits. I would imagine a lot of it is applicable to for-profits, too. (The summary makes it sound very individual-focused, but I remember being impressed when reading it that it addressed workplace systems, not just individual's actions.)
posted by lazuli at 6:47 PM on May 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

I once had a job that had a personal trainer come in three times a week to lead a stretching class over lunch. It was amazing. (Also optional, you weren't forced to do it. But if you wanted to, it was free!)
posted by rainbowbrite at 7:47 PM on May 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Seconding the recommendation for Trauma Stewardship, and I recommend seeing her do a live workshop day too - she's a dynamic speaker.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 9:47 PM on May 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

In my workplace (teaching teens) there have been many 'wellbeing' activities over the years. Yoga, Pilates, other sports groups, retreats (we are a religious school), drop in availability of the counsellors and chaplain who also serve the student body etc.
The general feeling is - thanks, appreciated, but all this is window dressing while you are making unreasonable demands in terms of pressure to produce results at all costs, and to carry out burdensome administrative duties.

So my answer would be fair working practices which allow for work-life balance are the best strategies for protecting mental health
posted by Heloise9 at 11:55 PM on May 1, 2018 [11 favorites]

Heloise9 do we work at the same school? I agree that a smoothly functioning and reasonable work place is the best thing I can think of for my mental health. My workplace is offering yoga before and after the working day and a nutritionist to discuss healthy eating. This makes me angry, more than anything else, because the idea is that we add to our working day by staying there longer to do yoga while management makes a series of disastrous structural decisions that ppl find insulting and pointlessly time consuming. I would love for them to just get their act together and then I could go to my own yoga class.
posted by jojobobo at 2:06 AM on May 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

I have one regularly scheduled work-from-home day a week, and it is amazing. A distinction between working from home and sick/vacation days is necessary, too; the ability to work remotely should not become an expectation.

Somewhat related: be careful not to reward employees who go “above and beyond” in ways that push expectations or cause stress for their coworkers. I have a coworker who regularly works from home on sick/vacation days (they worked from home with the flu, this year’s extra-shitty flu) and who has a tendency to leap on projects before anyone else. They’re trying really hard to prove their value and I sympathize, but it’s not encouraging for the rest of us to have to fight over the most interesting work, plus this employee regularly grumbles and swears at their desk and I’m like, dude, you’re bringing this on yourself.
posted by Metroid Baby at 3:10 AM on May 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

Another thing: avoid motivational/inspirational messaging that talks about “passion” or “purpose” or “love” or otherwise conflates work with some sort of emotional fulfillment or higher calling. It implies no need for work/life balance and places the motivational burden on employees - and suggests they can put up with more shit and less support/compensation, because they truly care about their work and isn’t that the most important thing? You can encourage and expect good performance without losing sight of the fact that it’s a job, and the best places I’ve worked have maintained that balance.
posted by Metroid Baby at 3:45 AM on May 2, 2018 [9 favorites]

Set clear deadlines and expectations with ample lead time so that staff can get these tasks done with some buffer for mental health dips/crises. A no-questions-asked mental health day policy and accommodations for standing psych appointments. Quiet/safe spaces: rooms with weighted blankets, noise cancellation, meditation tracks, fidget cubes...

I think a lot of these ideas go back to a culture of trust in the company - the default attitude is distrust that these things will be used appropriately / warranted, vs. believing staff 100% when they say they need accommodations.
posted by ahundredjarsofsky at 7:15 AM on May 2, 2018

All of the things mentioned upthread are good; particularly what's been said about open plan offices. Being shoved shoulder-to-shoulder with coworkers, with no personal space, is terrible. (Ask me how I know!)

What's even worse is the recent trend of Hot Desks. Working in a hot desk environment is a fast ticket to employee misery.

Among all of the personal days, mental health days, in-office yoga, therapy dog sessions and such, the work still needs to get done. The most important thing that a manager can do to help people love their work and need less mental health days is to create a work culture where employees feel safe, both physically and psychologically.

People want to feel comfortable sharing ideas and opinions in meetings. They don't want to worry that there are clandestine plans to demote them or lay them off at the slightest misstep. If they do make a mistake, a good manager won't just use that as an excuse to deny that person a raise or a promotion. Instead, they will defuse the tension around the mistake and help coach that employee into improving themselves.

Sometimes, not everyone can be promoted. Not everyone performs well. Sometimes, the company can't afford to give everyone a raise. Sometimes, the company has to lay off 10% of its workforce.

When these times come around, don't get all cloak-and-dagger about it. Just be honest with people about why it's happening. Treat them with consideration and respect. Be professional. Expect everyone in the office to behave professionally, and to treat one another with respect as well. Don't tolerate drama and office politics.

Just this will go a long way toward happy employees who need less mental health days.
posted by cleverevans at 9:39 AM on May 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

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