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When constantly dealing with the fallout from global events we forget to take notice of the most immediate reality of experience: that is our internal thoughts and feelings. In concentrating attention on compensating for external problems and avoiding or trying to predict new ones, our focus is far too often outside of ourselves.

Collectively and as individuals we can sometimes overlook how we are feeling. On the whole the business community is pragmatic: cutting to the chase and the bottom line, but sometimes this focus on achievement can overshadow a key issue. Are we happy?

Discussions of mental health are often assumed to be about mental illness. This is because psychology as a discipline began with studies of pathologies, but more recently there are many examples of studies into optimum mental health. An interest in mental health is equally important to those who are not suffering in that they may become happier than they are already, and may help those around them to be more so as well.

In the work environment, studies into mental health have generally moved from considering happiness as a means to increasing productivity, to happiness at work as a goal in itself. People spend a large portion of their lives at work so it is natural that we should aim to ensure that this environment is conducive to good physical and mental health.

The European Union has been shown to be an advocate for mental health awareness in the workplace and has addressed the issue from both the public health policy and employment law perspective. However, conclusions drawn from a conference entitled ‘Promotion of Mental Health and Well-being in Workplaces’ recognised a continuing need for action:

“poor mental health is a key contributor to poor performance and absenteeism from work, as well as one of the principal reasons for long term premature withdrawal from the labour force…Costs fall on many different stakeholders, not only on people with mental health problems, their families and employers, but also on those ministries responsible for employment and social welfare which may have to cover the long term costs of disability / unemployment benefits, as well as ministries of health that may have to deal with the long term consequences for mental and physical health.”

The conference also concluded that: ‘Employment in a good working environment is intrinsically good for mental health and wellbeing; moreover, a good working environment can aid in recovery and promotion of social inclusion for people living with poor mental health. Additional benefits that may be enjoyed by families of employees who have better mental wellbeing at work… The dividing line between work and family life is increasingly blurred, while time pressures are increasing with the continuing shift from a manual to knowledge-orientated economy. Another concern, not just at a time of economic downturn, is the constant restructuring that Europe‘s economy must undergo to remain competitive. This has implications for job security as well as for any schemes to help those who may lose their jobs as part of restructuring to maintain resilience when looking for new work opportunities.’

With the understanding that awareness of mental health issues in the workplace in Amercian corporations lags behind the action taken by some of their European counterparts, SAP and Qualtrics, along with Mind Share Partners conducted a study in 2019 into the ‘mental health experience and its impact on workplaces and employees beyond diagnostic prevalence’ : meaning the report aimed to look beyond diagnosable conditions and general stress levels as these traditional sets of metrics did not fully illustrate the variety of issues that may be characterised more widely as wellbeing in the workplace.

Using a sample of 1500 individuals from a demographically wide-ranging cross-section of American society the study collected responses to questions that focussed on symptoms rather than diagnosable conditions such as ‘in the past year, have you ever felt sad, numb, or lost interest or pleasure in most activities for at least two weeks?’.

The study found that less than half of respondents felt that mental health was prioritised at their company, and that of these employees, many would not want to admit that they had experience of a mental health condition even though 80% of people have to manage one at some point in their lives.

“When conversations about mental health did occur, less than half were described as positive. In fact, respondents were the least comfortable talking with their company’s HR and senior leaders, although senior leaders, including CEOs, were just as likely to struggle with mental health symptoms as individual contributors.”

This year mental health awareness campaigns are focussing on the theme of kindness in the workplace as a means to de-stigmatise issues around mental health. It is a way to address the problem proactively by increasing general wellbeing and happiness at work. Put simply, small acts of kindness by individuals can alleviate, and to some extent avoid the build-up of negative experiences among their peers.

Kindness was the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week, run by Mind, a UK mental health charity supported by the Royal Foundation, and is also at the centre of the #BeKind21 campaign run by the Born This Way Foundation, started by Lady Gaga who is an SAP Purpose Network partner.

SAP is taking part and helping publicise the #BeKind21 initiative with an article published in SAP News which summarises the purpose of the campaign.

“By engaging in an intentional act of kindness every day for 21 days, the #BeKind21 campaign encourages participants to make kindness a habit, commit to compassion, and foster genuine connection. It empowers people to treat kindness as a verb and take conscious action to uplift the spirits of those around them”

The Born This Way Foundation exists in order to ‘support healthy conversations about mental wellness to connect youth with resources and services that support their mental health – online and offline, and to encourage and build communities that understand and prioritise mental and emotional wellness’ and SAP’s participation in #BeKind21 is part of their own effort to encourage these values and aspirations in the business environment.

The academic journal Emotion (produced by the American Psychological Association) published an article in 2018 the results of a study into kindness (‘Prosociality’) at work called “Everyday prosociality in the workplace: The reinforcing benefits of giving, getting, and glimpsing.” in which kindness was shown to be contagious.

The study produced a functional analysis of how ‘predispositions for prosocial [kind] behaviour prompt, reinforce, and propagate kind behaviours in the real world’. Randomly assigned employees of a Spanish corporation were given roles as either Givers or Receivers (or statistical Controls) of kind acts to be practiced in the workplace over four weeks.

“We found that Givers and Receivers mutually benefited in well-being in both the short-term (e.g., on weekly measures of competence and autonomy) and the long-term (e.g., Receivers became happier after 2 months, and Givers became less depressed and more satisfied with their lives and jobs). In addition, Givers’ prosocial acts inspired others to act: Receivers paid their acts of kindness forward with 278% more prosocial behaviours than Controls. Our results reveal that practicing everyday prosociality is both emotionally reinforcing and contagious (inspiring kindness and generating hedonic rewards in others) and that receiving everyday prosociality is an unequivocally positive experience (which may further reinforce Givers’ actions).

[J., Margolis, S., Jacobs Bao, K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2018)]

This demonstrates a positive feedback loop of kind acts at work will be generated if employees are asked to consciously engage in intentional acts of kindness. Even if they know initially that these are not spontaneous acts, the effect of being kind is beneficial to all parties, even people witnessing the kindness, and this can be seen as a collaborative social defence against mental health problems in individuals within a group developing or becoming unmanageable.

There are various forms of acts of kindness and behaviours in the workplace which the IgniteSAP community encourages employees and corporations to adopt, not just for a limited period of time but in a way which is easily sustainable. It can be as simple as asking a colleague how they are, or making a cup of tea for someone. If, like a large portion of the working population, you are working from home currently why not take some time to have a video call with one of your colleagues to discuss anything other than business?

If you would like to start being kinder to your colleagues (even the annoying ones) remember that variety and surprises are key, and don’t forget that you can also be kind to yourself too by taking some time for yourself and going for a walk or making something extra special for lunch.

Here are some more simple and effective ways you can be kind to your colleagues and cultivate rapport in your team:

  • Break the ice and start conversations more often.
  • Take a genuine interest in the lives of your co-workers outside of the workplace.
  • When you are in conversation, ensure that is balanced and each person can contribute.
  • Ask people for their opinions and don’t be judgemental about their answers.
  • Don’t make assumptions about people: they are far more complex than they appear.
  • Pay people compliments and express admiration if they have done something well.
  • If a member of your team is quieter than others make time for them to talk.
  • If you see someone talking down to, or over the head of another colleague don’t confront them but encourage them later to see the positive aspects of that other person.

SAP News has produced a list as part of #BeKind21 of 21 acts of kindness you can try, but be imaginative and think what the person would really appreciate. It does not have to cost you any money.

The website randomactsofkindness.org has produced a free 12 month workplace kindness calendar highlighting monthly themes structured to create a kinder work culture. It contains suggestions for daily acts of kindness. Download the calendar and display it in the workplace as a simple way to get started and make the space you work in a happier place.

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