These days, when we talk about making connections, many of us automatically think of social media. Technology has completely changed the face of our working lives, as well as our social ones – and there can be no doubt that it has made elements of our lives simpler in the workplace. But are we harming our mental health by becoming more disconnected from those in the physical world around us?
Social interaction: does it matter?
Humans are a social species. We have groups of friends, we marry and have families. We work as teams. But increasingly in the modern world, these social relationships are being replaced by virtual ones. We text our friends or “speak” to them on Facebook instead of seeing them in person. The gaps between meetings grow longer – and our isolation from each other grows deeper.
Dozens of studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships with their families, friends and communities have a better quality of life. They feel happier, they are less at risk from a number of serious diseases, and they live longer.
On the other hand, those who lack meaningful human interaction in their lives are more likely to experience higher levels of stress and anxiety. This has a powerful negative effect on almost every part of the body, including the brain. By taking ourselves out of the social world and reducing our face-to-face communications with people, we’re putting ourselves at serious risk.
How does this affect mental health in the workplace?
People with stronger social connections are less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. Their self-esteem is higher, they are more cooperative and they feel more empathy. This obviously translates into better workplace mental health, as empathy and cooperation are essential for a well-functioning and supportive team environment.
But, have we become so disconnected from each other that we’re actually letting down the people who are suffering at work?
Research shows that three out of five employees have suffered from mental health issues as a result of work. It’s a problem that affects staff at all levels, including managers, and across all employment sectors. Panic attacks, depression, anxiety, mood swings and raised blood pressure have all been reported.
So, why aren’t we talking about it?
The stigma around workplace mental health
If we’re not talking to each other much at all anymore, it’s even less likely that we’ll feel comfortable discussing the important issues that have a profound impact on our lives. Mental health is often so misunderstood that people are afraid to mention it in the workplace in case it has a negative impact on their careers. They feel unable to admit their mental health problems to their colleagues or managers for fear of discrimination.
An extensive study undertaken in 2017 by the UK-based group Business in the Community shows the scale of the problem. Almost half of all employees reported not feeling comfortable talking about their mental health at work. Of those that did, the majority chose to discuss it with a colleague rather than a manager, which suggests they aren’t getting the support they need.
“It is a taboo to discuss mental health,” says one 26-year-old line manager. “It is implied at my company that experiencing mental health issues is a sign of being incompetent at your job.”
While some employees report that their organisations have been supportive of their mental health needs, others have faced disciplinary action, been demoted or even lost their jobs altogether.
Attitudes to mental health in the workplace need to change – and this can only happen through effective human interaction. The problem is often not recognised higher up the corporate ladder; in the boardroom, 61% of senior leaders and CEO’s believe that their organisations prioritise the mental health of staff. But employees disagree, with 75% of managers believing there are barriers to employees getting the support they need.
The importance of human interaction
Just 24% of managers have currently received any training on workplace mental health. But, where training has been put in place, the results are positive. Some companies are now training dedicated mental health advocates. Others are referring employees for counselling or offering other support, such as helping them with their workloads. But these positive steps can’t be taken unless we can feel safe talking about mental health problems at work.
We all need real social interaction in our lives if we’re to stay healthy and happy. So it’s time we all looked up from our screens and remembered how to talk to each other.
If you’d like more information about mental health in the workplace, we’re happy to help. Please get in touch.