In the U.S., April 4-10 marks National Public Health Week, which aims to educate policymakers, practitioners and the public about topics that are important to improving the health of our nation.
Among the issues to be highlighted this year is mental wellness. A critical component of public health, mental wellness comprises emotional, psychological and social well-being. Each year, one in five Americans experiences mental illness — a health condition that changes the way they think, feel, or behave and affects their lives and their work. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues, as many have dealt with grieving for lost loved ones, anxiety over exposure to the virus, isolation due to quarantines and social distancing mandates, and more.
While there is no single cause for mental illness, certain childhood risk factors can be indicators for mental illness later in life. These adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) include various forms of physical and emotional abuse, neglect, isolation, family dysfunction, racism and discrimination, violent community surroundings and chronic poverty. (Genetics and alcohol/drug use are also significant contributing factors.)
All can lead to toxic stress, which is the excessive activation of stress response, and have a detrimental impact on a child’s developing brain and immune, metabolic and cardiovascular systems. Toxic stress from childhood may manifest later in life in a variety of physical symptoms — such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar, insomnia and chronic inflammation — as well as in psychological issues.
The antidote to toxic stress
While the prevalence of toxic stress is a serious public health concern, thankfully it tells only part of the story. We’ve all heard the stories of remarkable individuals who endured horrific childhood experiences, yet somehow grew up into well-adjusted adults and became highly successful in life. What is it that enabled them to overcome such traumatic circumstances?
Herrman et al. defined resilience as “positive adaptation, or the ability to maintain or regain mental health, despite experiencing adversity.” In essence, resilience reflects emotional fitness and the ability to bounce back from, cope with, and adapt to unfavorable or stressful situations.
Resilience stems from a combination of personal, biological, environmental and systemic sources. The good news about this interaction of factors is that resilience doesn’t come only from within; it can be bolstered extrinsically. Even a person who seems not to have much natural capacity for resilience can learn to be more resilient. While our childhood experiences may influence the rest of our lives, they do not necessarily define us.
Cultivating workforce resilience
Emotional intelligence and the ability to manage emotions at work continue to take on greater importance. As technological advances automate all kinds of rote tasks, human interventions are now often reserved for times when interpersonal connection, empathy and understanding are needed most. Resilience is key to forging meaningful connections in such situations, so it’s in employers’ best interest to develop greater resilience in their employees. Further, resilience has been shown to correlate with lower rates of employee absenteeism, higher job satisfaction, less turnover and overall better health and well-being.
Here are a few tips for organizations seeking to promote employee resilience:
- Adopt a holistic view of health. While we know that mental/emotional and physical well-being are thoroughly intertwined, the health care and benefits systems in America tend to compartmentalize them. Many other developed countries do a better job than the U.S. of providing (and insisting on) paid time away from work and integrating physical activity into daily routines — both of which are important to mental wellness. Employees’ emotional health must be considered as an integral part of overall workforce well-being.
- Leverage partner resources. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Many benefits vendors, such as employee assistance program (EAP) providers, offer training and initiatives to support the resilience of the workforce. For example, Sedgwick offers our field case management clients exclusive access to our crisis care program, and our clinical behavioral health experts are available to provide one-on-one coaching, as well as crisis preparedness and/or response training to a wide range of employer groups.
- Raise stress awareness. Employees need to know how to recognize and manage work-related stress. Encourage healthy exercises that cultivate positive narratives and build resilience, such as goal setting, meditation, establishing boundaries, journaling/expressive writing, deep breathing, movement breaks and work-group debriefings.
Accepting employees as they are
The 2022 theme for National Public Health Week is “public health is where you are.” One message that employers can draw from this year’s observance is the importance of accepting people wherever they are on their lifelong mental health journey. Oftentimes, organizations and people managers don’t know what’s in their employees’ pasts or which stressors may trigger them to feel like they’re reliving a long-ago trauma. Employers can best support employees and contribute to overall public health and well-being by promoting resilience, offering robust benefits and a culture of caring, and practicing kindness and empathy.
For more on resilience, see:
- American Psychological Association on resilience
- Carter Center – mental health program and public health training initiative
- Center for Workplace Mental Health on resilience
- Sedgwick podcast featuring Kimberly George – Bouncing back with resiliency (2020)
- meQuilibrium – Digital resilience coaching platform, backed by scientific research
- NumberStory.org – Website designed to raise awareness of ACEs and help people and communities prevent and address the effects of childhood toxic stress