Anxiety Leads to Bad Decisions. Here’s Why You Need to Prioritize Employee Mental Health.

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No matter what you do for work, decision-making is at the center of it. As humans, we spend every day making decisions — big and small, cautious and impulsive.

At work, decisions matter. What might seem like a quick judgment call could affect your entire team, even the success of your company. As researchers Andrew Campbell, Jo Whitehead, and Sydney Finkelstein summarized in a Harvard Business Reviewresearch report, “[E]normously important decisions made by intelligent, responsible people with the best information and intentions are sometimes hopelessly flawed.”

This is something psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman wrote about in his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which describes the mind in terms of its two, opposite modes of thinking: “System 1,” Kahneman asserts, is based on instinct, enabling us to make fast, emotion-driven decisions. Fight or flight, in other words. “System 2” describes our logical, careful thought processes—how we would ideally make decisions in the workplace if we could. Unsurprisingly, system 1 is responsible for most of our bad decisions—those influenced by acute emotions like anger, frustration, and sadness as well as biases, anxiety and other mental health issues.

According to Kahneman, everyone possesses these two systems of thinking. What that means is no one is immune to poor judgment. We all are vulnerable to tough emotions, and acting in response to them. It doesn’t matter how smart, powerful, or well-prepared you are. As humans, we are always assessing our options with pattern recognition: we react to experiences with “emotional tags,” formed by memories and personal associations. This process is totally unconscious.

Several recent studies show that anxiety impairs our ability to make decisions, as it puts us in fight-or-flight mode. In this state, we really feel like we’re being chased by a lion, even if the “danger” looming is just the stress of tight deadlines and excessive meetings.

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To make sure your team can engage in thoughtful decision-making, it’s up to you to foster an environment that prioritizes mental health. Rather than have your employees rely on stress for a quick-fix of motivation, emphasize the importance of stress-management — for well-being and productivity alike. Here are five guidelines we use at Talkspace to get you started:

1. Address mental health head-on.

One in five employees in the United States are said to experience a mental health issuein a given year, and yet only 13.4% receive treatment. Add to the mix that depression is the leading cause of disability across the globe. Stress alone can cause severe physical health problems,  from stroke to cardiovascular disease.

According to the CDC, employee mental health issues are costing U.S. businesses about 200 million workdays and $190 billion each year. Not only are employees suffering, but stress is also costing companies their bottom line.

Let your employees know that mental health is as much of a priority as physical health. Do this via generous vacation policies, HR materials and policies, internal communications, and in conversation. Make the workplace a zone of mental health awareness.

2. Walk the talk: be an example of work-life balance.

Stress is inevitable — especially if your role is one of great responsibility. But when trying to cultivate a positive environment for employee mental health, leading by example is key.

If you don’t want your employees to arrive at dawn, stay till dusk, and subsist on caffeine and sad-desk-lunches, then you need to avoid these behaviors yourself. Make sure to take daily breaks and vacations. Let your employees know about your personal interests and pursuits outside work. Show that you’re just as vulnerable to stress as anyone else by pointing out your own tools for stress-management.

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3. Don’t focus only on  “just getting it done.”

Now we know that anxiety-fueled decisions are not our best ones. If you create a company culture that prizes efficiency and productivity above all else, then you will be contributing to your team’s overall anxiety. The “get it done” attitude positions stress as a motivating force.

Instead, focus on unique company values. Thoughtful debate and discussion. Positive external messaging. Team building. Express these ideas — and enforce them. Help build a team that is intuitive but not rash, cautious but pragmatic.

4. Provide opportunities for creativity, inspiration and plenty of fun.

Creativity and inspiration mean something different to everyone, so choose what they mean for you in the context of your company. Maybe you invite occasional guest speakers to the office. Maybe you plan professional development workshops. Maybe you incorporate more team-building events.

By showing that you care about professional development for your employees beyond their everyday tasks, you will be motivating them with inspiration rather than pressure.

Fortunately, happy employees have been shown to be more productive. When you feel like a valued part of a community, you will do better work to serve that community. Period.

5. Encourage open communication.

The most recent Work and Wellbeing survey published in 2016 by the American Psychological Association (APA) showed that less than half of the 1,501 surveyed workers felt they worked for an organization that prioritized their well-being. Yet, as many as 1 in 3 workers reported chronic stress on the job. There is a clear disconnect between the reality of employee needs and employers’ awareness of them.

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As a leader, it’s your job to give your employees the green-light to approach management with any questions, unmet needs, or concerns (whether personal or professional in nature). Your team members will be able to spend much more time and energy doing good work if they aren’t worried about the parameters of a project, or the meaning of a memo.

Anxiety at work will probably never stop completely. But by acknowledging this to your employees and supporting their stress-management — by providing and broadening access to mental health resources — you are making an investment in their mental health. That investment will support not only their well-being, but the quality of their work and the health of your company at large. Invest in mental health, and everyone wins.

Oren Frank
CEO & CO-Founder, talkspace.com

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