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Mental Health for All and by All in the Modern Workplace

Professor John Quelch & Carin-Isabel Knoop, authors of Compassionate Management of Mental Health in the Modern Workplace

Over a Million Suicide Attempts a Year in the U.S. Impact Hundreds of Thousands of Lives

When we travel, we are told to watch our surroundings, stay vigilant, and think about others. Privately, we lean the other way, sinking into our phones, burrowed in our social media nests, focused on ourselves. 

Yet around us, the mental ache is great. Death by suicide is at an all-time record high. It is now the 10th overall leading cause of death (7th for men and 14th for women) in the United States. In 2017, more than 47,000 individuals (most between 45 and 65 years of age) took their own lives; in 40% of cases there had been a prior attempt.1 Overall, there are 25 attempts for each death. Two-thirds of firearm-related deaths are self-inflicted. Temporary coping mechanisms (such as drinking, eating, and working too much; driving and living too fast; and sleeping too little) also cut lifespans short. Drug addiction and overdoses are decimating entire communities. Sometimes hindsight will reveal clues to the tragic outcome; sometimes not. Our failure to act makes us partly responsible for these deaths of despair.

Turn Caring into a Reflex at Work: Be Thy Other’s Keeper

At this time of emotional climate change and retrenchment, we need to look up and at others again, and be more sympathetic to their challenges and accessible in times of need. A good place to start is at work, where the majority of us spend most of our adult lives. We can help prevent deaths by suicide by doing our part to be present and attentive at work, to build supportive and inclusive workplace environments.

Unfortunately, our current ways of working make it harder to get to know our colleagues. Increasingly, we communicate with our peers virtually and wear headphones to minimize distractions. We switch jobs often. We hesitate to divulge personal details to our colleagues, separating our “work” and “life” as much as possible, not sure whom we can trust among the new or unfamiliar faces. At the same time, we take work home and home to work—always on, always connected yet often lonely. Contributing factors include company cultures that do not focus on integration and inclusion—ones in which individuals and opinions are largely ignored or subsumed in favor of the team dynamic.

If You Sense Something, Do Something2

We heed warnings about environmental climate change by modifying some of our behaviors for the betterment of the planet. But what are we doing to address emotional climate change? Much as every person we lose to suicide impacts us all, so does the collective power of our individual actions and attention to do what we can to help change someone’s path. In many instances, suicide is preventable. We know that early detection of potential mental health problems can help change outcomes. In that spirit, please consider regularly practicing the following actions to renew our commitment to ourselves and each other:

Mind Your Mind:3 Check in with yourself on how you are feeling, thinking, and behaving, and seek help if any of these factors are impeding your ability to lead a balanced, connected life and help others to do so, too. Learn how to better observe, acknowledge, and feel your feelings nonjudgmentally. Practice mindfulness/meditation for even as little as five minutes daily when you begin to notice painful or “negative” emotions. Begin or further develop a recognition of gratitude: write up to three items in a gratitude journal daily that you can review when times are tough. At work, engage in little acts: take earbuds off to greet someone, make small talk for more than a minute, share a positive comment, ask someone for their opinion on a business issue or topic, etc.

Stress About Stressors:4 Reflect on who in your professional orbit might be in a challenging situation and/or displaying micro-signals such as tardiness, poor grooming, or missed deadlines. A combination of personal dispositions (social skills and personality issues, weak social networks, and medical and mental health conditions) plus professional, interpersonal and community, financial, and personal stressors increases vulnerability. Equally risky are major transition points such as promotions and expatriations, caregiving (for all kinds of loved ones), and loss (death, divorce, and layoffs). If you are concerned, approach this person to check in—not about the changes per se, but about how the person might be doing, and offer assistance if appropriate. Take the time and have the courage to be attentive—without being intrusive—and to lend an ear, a hand, or a shoulder or make a referral to a capable and qualified program that might provide positive insight or assistance. This can help you practice mindfulness of others, not just close friends and family.

Dare to Care:5 Share a meal or conversation with a person who might be more isolated at work or going through an inflection. Only around half of Americans have meaningful in-person social interactions on a daily basis, whether an extended conversation with a friend or quality time with family. Meaningful connections, as demonstrated in the 80-year longitudinal Harvard Study of Adult Development, are important contributors to happiness—and can be an essential antidote to despair. 

About the Authors

Professor John Quelch is the Leonard M. Miller University Chair Professor and Vice Provost at the University of Miami as well as Dean of Miami Business School in Florida. His dual research background in business and public health helps organizations realize that mental health is mission critical to workplace performance and provides them the tools to do so (see Quelch & Knoop, Compassionate Management of Mental Health in the Modern Workplace, published by Springer in 2018).

Carin-Isabel Knoop leads the Harvard Business School’s research and writing group, and has written more than 200 case studies on organizations around the world. Engaging with thousands of managers over decades about their challenges enabled her to develop an expertise in and commitment to improving mental health in the workplace for the benefit of all stakeholders (see Quelch & Knoop, Compassionate Management of Mental Health in the Modern Workplace, published by Springer in 2018).

Footnotes & References

[1] By some estimates, 30% to 70% of suicide victims suffer from a depressive, bipolar, or manic disorder. Substance use disorder is an additional risk factor, doubling or tripling the suicide risk for men and increasing it six- to nine-fold for women. 

[2]  A version of the original sentence, “If you see something, say something,” widely attributed to a consultant to the New York Transit Authority, is used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

[3] Quelch, J. A., & Knoop, C.-I. (2018). Mind the Mind: How Am I Doing and How Can I Do Better? In Compassionate management of mental health in the modern workplace.

[4] Quelch, J. A., & Knoop, C.-I. (2018). Stress About Stressors: What Are Key Inflection Points? In Compassionate management of mental health in the modern workplace.

[5] Quelch, J. A., & Knoop, C.-I. (2018). Dare to Care: How Are Others Doing, and How Might I Help? In Compassionate management of mental health in the modern workplace.

John Quelch & Carin-Isabel Knoop

John Quelch & Carin-Isabel Knoop

John Quelch & Carin-Isabel Knoop

Authors of Compassionate Management of Mental Health in the Modern Workplace

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