Five Tips to Build a Workplace Mental Health Program

Organization-wide measures and education can help prioritize and protect your lab's mental health

Clinical laboratory workers often experience feelings of anxiety, and high levels of stress and burnout. Among the contributing factors to mental health problems in clinical staff are the extreme workloads, long shifts, concerns about personal safety, and poor support from management. 

The pandemic has introduced new stressors: extended hours in hazmat suits, facilities operating at reduced staffing, and supply chain disruptions, including a shortage of personal protective equipment. In fact, research shows that the more profound the involvement in COVID-19-related activities, the higher the psychological distress among medical laboratory professionals. 

Laboratory leaders can have a significant role in strengthening mental health initiatives in the workplace. Besides improving laboratory workers' overall quality of life, mental health initiatives can reduce absenteeism, boost productivity, and enhance work quality. Here are five practices to consider as you build a workplace culture that values mental health.

1. Raise awareness about mental health

Mental health remains a largely taboo topic almost everywhere in the world. We can change this by educating employees—especially managers—about the importance of mental health. 

"Laboratory leaders can have a significant role in strengthening mental health initiatives in the workplace."

According to a study from the University of Toronto, raising the general awareness about mental health within an organization is the best way to help improve mental health in the workplace as it promotes early identification of psychological disorders, improves attitudes toward seeking treatment and prevention, and decreases stigma around mental health problems.1 In addition, managers empowered with knowledge about mental health can support employees more effectively.2

Organizations can leverage education tools and resources ranging from free and basic to more robust fee-based training programs. 

Mind.org.uk, for example, offers free resources to help improve mental health in the workplace. In particular, the People Managers' Guide to Mental Health aims to give anyone involved in managing people the information, resources, and tools they need to support employee mental health at work. 

You might also consider booking a guest mental health speaker, offering workshops, or sending employees a monthly mental health newsletter. Another option is to enroll your team in customized training like the Mental Health First Aid at Work program, which teaches participants how to identify and support individuals experiencing a mental health challenge in the workplace.

2. Start at the top

Supervisors design aspects of the laboratory environment and work procedures, determine workload demands, and directly interact with their employees through their leadership behavior. Research shows that positive leadership attitudes, such as showing appreciation, support, and encouragement, are particularly beneficial to employees’ mental health,3 while negative leadership behaviors, such as abusive supervision, exert deleterious effects on subordinates' psychological well-being and performance.4

"Organizations can leverage education tools and resources ranging from free and basic to more robust fee-based training programs."

Apart from acting as role models, leaders' self-care and transparency build the foundation of health-promoting leadership. The way executive teams, managers, and senior employees think, feel, and behave about their own mental health provides important foundations for role modeling and encourages other laboratory workers to deal with their mental health issues.

Culture change is a top-down process. Having senior management as an open, vulnerable model builds trust and allows people to talk freely about topics that may otherwise have been avoided.

3. Provide support

A clear mental health strategy and specific policies are critical to ensure employees get the support they need straight away. Receiving support quickly often helps people steer away from developing a more serious problem.

If your organization has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), it can arrange assessments, counseling, and referrals to mental health professionals. Emphasize that laboratory workers can access the EAP confidentially and free of charge and that they can use this benefit as much as they want. According to the Workplace Outcome Suite Annual Report 2020, the typical return on investment for an EAP (for a medium-size employer) is $5 for every $1 invested in the program—a worthy investment.

With health care mobile apps becoming increasingly cost-efficient and effective, employers can also partner with providers to develop personalized preventive and care solutions tailored to the needs of individual laboratories and their employees.

4. Create an environment that embraces balance

No laboratory environment is ever going to be stress free. However, you can use interventions to reduce stress. 

Stress management training, apps that help with sleep and stress reduction, and worksite wellness programs can increase coping capacity and prevent adverse mental health outcomes in the workplace. Interventions to reduce stressors in the laboratory environment can also help. These include ergonomic improvements, noise reduction, and interventions to improve access to daylight and views.

"Laboratories should shape workplace culture to destigmatize mental health issues while normalizing and encouraging help-seeking behaviors."

Working in a lab removes the opportunity to take too much work home, but employees can benefit from part-time or shorter work schedules. Laboratory leadership can also encourage employees to take full lunch breaks, rest and recover after busy periods, avoid working on weekends, and take their full vacation time. 

A company's policy about work-life boundaries, including after-hours emails and work hours, can also reduce stress at work. 

Remember that the laboratory workforce may have individual needs, so it's essential to find out what your employees want and to accommodate their needs as much as possible. 

5. Mental health and well-being as core assets of your organization

Laboratories should shape workplace culture to destigmatize mental health issues while normalizing and encouraging help-seeking behaviors. And that doesn't need to be a costly effort. 

For example, management can set targets and key performance indicators for improving mental health that integrate with other laboratory performance metrics.

Leadership can also designate mental health champions both at a staff level and within senior management. They can oversee the development, implementation, or improvement of a mental health strategy in the workplace. 

Finally, building an environment of psychological safety and a culture of connection is critical. When employees feel safe and connected to their supervisors or the people they work with, it's easier for them to engage and raise concerns about mental health and well-being.

Implementing some of the strategies outlined here will protect and strengthen the mental health of laboratory workers. Remember that employees are your organization's most valuable resource. Investing in the mental health of the laboratory workforce is not only essential to their quality of life, but also to the overall health of your business. 

References:

  1. Moll SE, Patten S, Stuart H, MacDermid JC, Kirsh B. Beyond Silence: A Randomized, Parallel-Group Trial Exploring the Impact of Workplace Mental Health Literacy Training with Healthcare Employees. Can J Psychiatry. 2018;63(12):826-833. doi:10.1177/0706743718766051
  2. Gayed A, Milligan-Saville JS, Nicholas J, et al. Effectiveness of training workplace managers to understand and support the mental health needs of employees: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Occup Environ Med. 2018;75(6):462–470. doi:10.1136/oemed-2017-104789
  3. Arnold KA. Transformational leadership and employee psychological well-being: A review and directions for future research. J Occup Health Psychol. 2017;22(3):381–393. doi:10.1037/ocp0000062
  4. Zhang Y and Liao Z. Consequences of abusive supervision: A meta-analytic review. Asia Pac J Manag. 2015;32:959–987.

Morgana Moretti, PhD

Morgana Moretti, PhD, is a scientist and medical writer with more than 60 articles published in peer-reviewed biomedical literature. She holds a doctoral degree in biochemistry and has expertise in the study of brain alterations in neurodegenerative diseases and psychiatric disorders.