How Are You Feeling Today? No, How Are You REALLY Feeling?

Article by Christina Fry

In International Week of Happiness at Work, we look at why asking ourselves (and others) how we're REALLY feeling is business, and safety-critical.

IN THE wake of a global pandemic and unprecedented lockdowns, talking openly about how we feel has become increasingly commonplace – and rightly so. And yet, identifying, discussing and addressing poor mental health with an employer can still feel strangely taboo.

Businesses, if you haven’t done so already, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. We should care about how our staff feel – they are, after all, our greatest asset and if that’s not enough motivation – then here’s some data that might persuade you:

  • 70m workdays are lost each year due to mental health problems in the UK. That costs employers approximately £2.4bn (US$3.28bn) per year.
  • More than a fifth of engineers have had time off due to their mental health.

Let’s just take a minute and really think about that. In a sector built around identifying and solving problems, we are failing to tackle one of the greatest challenges of all – mental wellbeing.

What does mental health really mean?

It’s easy to dismiss poor mental health as a condition that is irrelevant to you. The truth, however, is that having good mental health – "being happy" – doesn’t just mean not having a mental health problem, it means being able to make the most of your potential and play a full part in your family, workplace, and community.

We all have times when we feel down, stressed or frightened. In reality, our moods fluctuate daily and aside from the impact this has on employee absence rates, there’s also a direct correlation to safety. Put simply, emotional wellbeing or happiness is a business and safety-critical issue.

Let me explain.

We currently operate in an economic environment that sees all of us under pressure to deliver more, for less. But, in a drive to boost profits and make efficiencies, senior management teams are often triggering behaviours that ultimately curb productivity.  Rarely focused on the task in hand, our brains are constantly whirring, thinking about the next deadline, the next meeting or the next task we’ll need to deliver. Add to that the pressures of our personal lives – the need to make time for family and friends, the worry of finances or wider responsibilities, and we can end up distracted and stressed.  "Rushing" becomes a culture – and we are so caught up in our thoughts that we stop noticing the impact they are having on our emotions and our behaviour.

There is, however, a quite simple solution that can impact mental well-being, productivity and safety at work – and that’s practising mindfulness.

But wait – don’t stop reading!

Yes, mindfulness has had a lot of hype recently and while some have embraced it as part of a wider wellbeing strategy, many others dismiss it as a fad – something zeitgeisty, not to be taken seriously. Nevertheless, let’s not lose sight of what mindfulness actually is – and that’s, quite simply, paying attention to the present moment, and having a consciousness of what is going on inside and outside of ourselves right now.

Mindfulness: There are simpler methods to be had other than sitting atop a mountain at sunrise

Being mindful

There is growing evidence that practising mindfulness at work can have several positive effects – boosting attention and concentration, reducing stress and reducing accidents.

Helping our teams be more mindful is not an overnight solution, however. It takes time to achieve, and it starts with retraining the brain.

That might seem like an altogether too theoretical concept but, in fact for those of us who remember the UK's road safety campaign of the 1970s, the "Green Cross Code" gives us a brilliant and simple example of how this can work. As adults, the everyday process of stopping, looking and listening before we cross the road is inbuilt. We don’t think about it, we just do it. But this wasn’t an innate ability we were born with, we had to learn it through repetition and practice.

To get to this point with mindfulness, we need to encourage the right behaviours. That means empowering all staff to stop and pause for thought. With this increased awareness of the here and now comes an acknowledgement of, and alertness to, the impact of our mood on our behaviour, possible risks and dangers, and the ability to deal with them positively, and before they escalate.

While young people are often open to this approach (perhaps familiar with it from their personal lives), older colleagues may remain resistant. Behaviours and attitudes can be more embedded, and mindfulness is often dismissed as "jargon".

So how can we encourage change?

Making it work in practice

There are some really simple things that we can all start doing now to encourage a culture of greater mindfulness and wellbeing in the workplace, and with it a significant improvement in productivity and safety. These are just a few tips on how to begin:

Give your teams permission to begin the conversation

Yes, that’s right, your team really does need your permission to start talking about mental wellbeing at work. Despite a growing focus on it in our personal lives, many remain fearful of admitting vulnerability at work and are worried that they will be permanently labelled as "having a problem". This has to change.

By normalising the conversation around mental health and wellbeing, we can create a psychologically-safe environment that encourages people to slow down and take stock (be mindful), to ask for help when they need it and critically to experiment with new ideas and deal with failures.

It's good to talk: Many remain fearful of admitting vulnerability. This has to change

At Air Products, making "mental wellbeing" the central theme of our UK and Ireland annual safety week last year really helped to do this, and showed a corporate commitment to helping our teams take a more mindful and present approach to work.

Build in pause for thought

In a busy working environment, it can be all too easy to feel guilty for taking a break. In reality, taking a break allows us to reconnect with how we are feeling, plan ahead and stay productive and well. That can look different to different people – but they need to know that a five-minute stroll in the sunshine, or a chat at the coffee machine is OK. In fact, it’s more than OK – it’s good business practice.

You could think about blocking out a short period at the start of each day and asking your teams to use this to reset from the crazy commute, or whirlwind of getting the kids to school.

Planning ahead like this is important. Looking after yourself, being able to take breaks, and staying hydrated all impact your wellbeing and your ability to focus and operate productively and safely. In engineering, where it is not always as simple as "just popping back to the control room", this takes preparation and thought.

Issue regular prompts and reminders

Even with the best intentions, it can be all too easy to get caught up in the deadlines and pressures of the day. Issuing regular prompts and reminders can encourage individuals at work to refocus on the here and now.

One of the ways we do this is by issuing "Action for Happiness" monthly calendars. The theme this month, for example, has been self-care September. Every day our teams get a small reminder to reconnect with how they are feeling and look after their wellbeing. It may seem small – but sometimes small reminders are all it takes to make a big difference.  Equally, educate people to look for the triggers that could suggest they need to reset – a dry mouth and sweaty palms are common biological symptoms of a stress reaction.

Share good news

Let’s face it, there is not masses of it about in the media and we can subconsciously be affected by this. Using internal communications to remind people what they, and others, are doing well can really help to lift the mood and calm the mind.

It’s really clear to me that what’s good for health, is good for business. Rushing through tasks in a bid to boost productivity has the potential to result in serious accident, injury and illness.

Slowing things down, being in the moment, and staying mindful at all times will ultimately make us all both safer and more productive.

Like it or loathe it, mindfulness is just a word, a phrase. At its crux is the belief that we can and should empower individuals to take personal responsibility for their own health, wellbeing and safety. Surely no-one would argue with that?

Article by Christina Fry

and UK/Ireland Environment Health & Safety Manager, Air Products

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