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Mental Wellness - Colorful head silhouette

UB Insider #50: How Paying Attention to Mental Wellness Boosts the Bottom Line

About this episode:

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, about 40 million adults in the United States are affected by anxiety disorders—which are often accompanied by depression—that are costing the U.S. more than $42 billion per year. An employee’s mental and emotional health can factor tremendously into their performance, but workplace wellness programs and other means of boosting health seldom address mental health. In this episode of UB Insider, Olivia Curtis, wellness specialist with G&A Partners, talks about why that is, why it matters, and what you can do. Subscribe to our podcast or download this episode on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or Google Play.

Lisa Christensen: Hello and welcome to UB Insider. I’m Lisa Christensen, Online Editor at Utah Business magazine. May is national mental health month. According to the National Institute for Mental Health about 40 million adults in the United States are affected by anxiety disorders which are often accompanied by depression. And that’s costing the U.S. more than $42 billion a year.

An employee’s mental and emotional health can factor tremendously into their performance but workplace wellness programs and other means of boosting health seldom address mental health. Olivia Curtis, Wellness Specialist with G&A Partners is here to talk about why that is, why it matters and what you can do. Welcome.

Olivia Curtis: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Lisa Christensen: Just generally tell me about the state of mental and emotional health care in the U.S. and in Utah.

Olivia Curtis: Well mental and emotional health has become an extremely hot topic because it’s affecting so much of the nation and the actually the world as a whole. So in fact, the World Health Organization claims that one in four people in the world will be affected by mental disorders at one point in their life. So that’s 25% of the world which is huge, and unfortunately these stats aren’t getting any better.

The American Psychological Association Stress in America Survey actually estimated that 44% of Americans report feeling more stressed out today than they did five years ago with one in five Americans reporting experiencing extreme stress. So this is a huge problem and unfortunately Utah is definitely contributing to those factors.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association actually put our a report a couple of years ago that pegged Utah as having one of the highest rates of mental illness in the nation. So out of all the adults in Utah that were surveyed, over 22% reported having mental illness of any kind, so anxiety, depression like you just mentioned. Whereas the national average was only about 18%. So we’re well over that national average. So I could rattle off a whole bunch of other statistics but the bottom line is the nation, the world and especially Utah are really struggling with mental and emotional health and how to address it.

Lisa Christensen: How is that mental and emotional health support lacking in most workplaces?

Olivia Curtis: Well many of the recent trends we’re seeing in workplaces today are challenging the mental and emotional health of employees. So the job market and the workplace just in general are getting more competitive, more demanding and the hours being worked is increasing as well. So in many cases, the number of hours you work is worn as a badge of honor. So answering emails at two in the morning and working 60 plus hour work weeks has become a way to showcase your work ethic and your dedication to the company. And don’t get me wrong, I highly value a good work ethic but at some point that’s going to start affecting your quality of life and your quality of work and those are going to suffer.

Lisa Christensen: Sure. Why do you think that, you know, we’ve got so many wellness programs… In my office we’re doing a walking challenge where we’re walking across Europe according to our steps. There are so many wellness programs but I haven’t heard of mental or emotional health being addressed in those. Why do you think that is?

Olivia Curtis: Personally, I think that emotional and mental wellness is overlooked simply because it’s internal. We can’t see it with our eyes and a lot of times we can’t diagnose it with a simple medical test. So obesity, we can see obesity. You can go to your doctor and get a simple blood test that tells you that you have high cholesterol. You can get your blood pressure tested and find out that you have hypertension, but emotional and mental health issues are not so cut and dry. They’re a lot more complex and for some people it’s embarrassing to talk about.

So all the time we hear, I really want to lose 15 pounds. We hear that at work and with our friends and family. It’s all over the news and TV and everything. But we don’t often hear, you know, I really want to work on my extreme anxiety and depression. It’s really taboo. So another reason why I think it’s overlooked is that physical health also seems to be easier to grasp because many of us were raised knowing the basics. We know we need to eat our vegetables and fruit. We know we need to sleep well, to get our water, to move enough. But we weren’t raised being able to recognize the symptoms and the consequences of stress and anxiety and depression and how to handle those symptoms in a healthy way.

Lisa Christensen: So what are some things that people can do to recognize those symptoms better and try to gauge how they’re doing emotionally versus how they’re doing outwardly?

Olivia Curtis: So I think education is a huge piece, so especially in worksite wellness, we as employers can work to educate our employees through things like: lunch and learns, teaching them how to recognize those symptoms, through educational handouts, through emails that outline resources and even videos to teach them how to recognize that and what to do. Stress is really tough because it’s very personal. What works for me isn’t going to work for you. And it’s our job as employers to help our employees find resources and find what works for them by trying different things, even on site a lot of times.

Lisa Christensen: And how does that benefit workplaces, especially given that so much of stress can be damaging to mental health?

Olivia Curtis: Let me preface this by saying that there is an amount of good stress which is called eustress that can help to motivate employees to be more productive and perform better. But there’s also a point where too much stress becomes chronic stress or distress. And that chronic stress is unhealthy and is what causes employees to burn out and actually break down both physically and mentally.

So these emotionally unwell employees have a higher risk of workplace injury, chronic illness, heart attacks and stroke, thus representing a bigger cost burden on the employer benefit plan. They are also more error prone, less productive and more short-tempered with their coworkers and customers which also costs the company money as well.

So on the flip side, emotionally well employees exhibit increased decision making and communication skills, are more productive and more likely to be physically healthy thus saving the company money. So by ensuring that their employees are emotionally well, employers can have a very positive effect not only on their company culture but on the quality of service that their company provides and their insurance costs.

Lisa Christensen: So it sounds like those are a lot of the same reasons that companies have physical wellness programs.

Olivia Curtis: Yeah! And now I think especially with how prevalent it is in the U.S. and in Utah, wellness programs are not only addressing the physical health but they’re also starting to address the emotional health as well.

Lisa Christensen: So you mentioned some of the ways that employers can help employees feel more emotionally well and manage their stress better. What are some, I guess, quick implementations that employers can do while they’re working on more long-term goals?

Olivia Curtis: Yeah, if you already have an existing wellness program in place it’s great to start adding emotional initiatives to that program. If that program is not already in place there are a lot of standalone initiatives that employers can put into place as well that are really inexpensive and very effective.

So for G&A, some of the ones that have worked well for us is holding weekly stress breaks. So as a company, whoever wants to comes into a room and we turn off the lights and have a ten minute deep breathing session or some meditation or stretching and that’s been very effective. We’ve actually brought someone onsite to do yoga class which was a huge hit. We found out that some of us are more flexible than others, but that was a lot of fun. We’ve also had onsite lunch and learns to help our employees learn how to manage their stress and as you said, notice the symptoms with that.

We have onsite chair massages which is a little bit more pricey but very appreciated by the employees if you can fit it into your budget. And one no-cost initiative that we rolled out that was a hit with our employees was last year we ran a gratitude challenge. So in November we had everyone write two things they were grateful for each day and then give three thank you notes to a coworker. That was one of our, we do monthly challenges and that was one that was the most popular. And we got a lot of feedback that that did help people really center themselves and feel emotionally well.

Lisa Christensen: What are some things that you find people have misconceptions about, you know, when it comes to mental and emotional wellness?

Olivia Curtis: I think the biggest misconception that I’ve seen is that if you struggle with anxiety or depression or even just stress in general that that is a sign of weakness. And there’s nothing further from the truth. That is not a sign of weakness. That is just a sign that we struggle with something and that we need to address it. I mean, if someone broke their leg you wouldn’t say, “Oh, you broke your leg because you’re weak.” You would just put it in a cast and listen to the doctor’s instructions. And that’s the exact same with any emotional wounds we have as well.

Lisa Christensen: What are some things you wish you could tell people about having better mental or emotional health?

Olivia Curtis: I would just say be very open to it. To me, emotional health is being able to handle life’s stressors in a productive and healthy way. So that means being more resilient, more in-control, happy and content most of the time. So if you find yourself struggling with these things, be open minded. Be very in tune to your feelings and your body and seek out resources whether it’s through your worksite wellness program or just reading resources online that will help you address that. So being open minded and being very willing to address those issues without being embarrassed.

Lisa Christensen: Okay. Well thank you so much for coming on today. Thanks also to Mike Sasich for production help. You can reach out to us at news@www.utahbusiness.com or through social media at @utahbusienss. You can also subscribe our UB Insider podcast wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.