You may be wondering, "Seriously? How can we focus on being happy at this time? How is this related to risk management?" Despair seems to be everywhere. Natural disasters are devastating our country. Political strife and international tensions have people on edge. So many people feel overwhelmed. Happiness at work seems an elusive fantasy in the midst of the grind.
National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month is underway. Many social media posts and events across the world promote crisis resources and encourage people to show up and "be there" for people experiencing suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, and suicide grief. Important components of suicide prevention for sure, but often coming very late in the downward spiral.
Resilience and how it relates to happiness is on my mind as positive ways we can stop suicide before the thought ever enters in. I just started a new partnership called "Resilience at Work" with WorkSmart Partners. We just created an assessment tool to help workplaces figure out "upstream, midstream, and downstream" strategies that will help build a psychologically hardy workforce.
Today, I want to work to help us get ahead of despair. How do we build protective buffers so that when we face intense situations, we are in a better position to get through them? Mental wellness tools and daily practices exist and have been shown to lead all of us to find true happiness and fully engaged living—not to mention greater productivity and safety at work.
What Is Happiness, and What It Is Not
Happiness is not just about pleasure, and it certainly is not about carefree living. When we have no stress and never work through feeling uncomfortable, we have boredom and sometimes a sense of emptiness. Happiness comes from fully engaged living. This sounds great, you may be thinking, but what does it have to do with work? Everything.
Forward-facing workplaces are waking up to understanding that when they offer opportunities to build resilience, mental fitness, and emotional intelligence at work, they develop healthier, safer, and more engaged employees. Those workplaces that do not offer these opportunities continue to struggle to attract and retain young talent and can expect to see increasing healthcare costs and "accidents." Accidents result from distraction that often is the consequence of being overwhelmed.
When it comes to safety, adverse reactions to stress—such as problems with fatigue and distraction—are the main drivers in human error. Period. Author T. Rajgopal states in "Mental Well-Being at the Workplace" that:
It is increasingly being recognized that the mental health of employees is a crucial determinant in their overall health and that poor mental health and stressors at the workplace can be a contributory factor to a range of physical illnesses like hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular conditions, amongst others…. In addition, poor mental health can also lead to burn-out amongst employees, seriously affecting their ability to contribute meaningfully in both their personal and professional lives. 1
Five Tools for Avoiding Despair
Here are my five takeaways and several tactical tools workplaces can use to "get upstream" from despair. In other words, this article is about building buffers of resiliency, so that when the tough times hit, you're more protected. None of these steps take much time or any money, and the return is fast and culture shifting when consistently applied. While they might seem like "easy" and "fluffy" soft skills, they take discipline and focus. Many leadership and productivity gurus like Tim Ferriss and business publications such as the Harvard Business Review state the return on these practices is exponential.
Let's start into the mindset of building resilience and fully engaged living—at work.
Reflect on Gratitude Daily
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity. It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.
A daily dose of gratitude at work may be just what we all need to improve our mental health and buffer against the effect of stress, pressing deadlines, and fear of failure. Being grateful helps us to be mindful of what is around us and shifts our focus outward. Thankful people have been found to be happier, have stronger relationships, are more optimistic, exercise more often, and have fewer visits to physicians.
Work teams would benefit from making gratitude inventories. Together or separately, team members can make a list of the 50 things that they are grateful for and keep the list nearby to remind the group on tough days. Include in this list the following.
- What do we take for granted at work?
- What work challenges have made us better people?
- Who are the people at work who have improved our well-being?
- What are the opportunities in the future that we look forward to?
- What gives us joy at work?
- Where do we find unconditional support?
Some people find it helpful to gather physical reminders of the things they are most grateful for in their life and put them into a "hope kit"—pictures, thank you letters they have received, and so on. This hope kit can actually be kept in a small box in a private spot in a desk or other workspace or could be housed online in a virtual box. 2
Start and end your workday by reflecting on these gifts and sending intentions of gratitude for their presence in your life by saying, "Today I am especially grateful for...." or "My life is better because ___________ is in it." Notice the sensations you feel when you make these mental intentions of thanks.
Throughout the workday, offer unexpected thanks without expectation of anything in return. Quick notes or public comments of gratitude go a long way for the giver and receiver. Make a part of every standing meeting "gratitude and recognition," and be specific when describing appreciation—it may be an outcome, an effort, or an intention.
Seek Opportunities for Kindness
Look for small acts of kindness you can enact in your day. Every day while you work, be creative in your thoughtfulness.
Reach out—no matter how bad you think things are for you, someone else is also having a tough time, maybe even worse than you, and would like to hear from you. By just sending a quick note like "thinking of you," "you matter to me," or "checking in," you can improve someone else's day and also get a jolt of happiness yourself.
A certain form of kindness is now being introduced to workplaces as a wellness program to increase employee engagement and retention, and there is great brain science to support this approach. When we engage in random acts of kindness, our psychological health gets a boost. The brain releases dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain. When we give to others, we produce endorphins in the brain. 3
"KyndHub" is a new program, and it pioneers the delivery of "kindfulness" as a means to build mental wellness at work. KyndHub is an online platform for practicing, sharing, and inspiring kindfulness. "Kindfulness" is a daily practice that includes volunteerism, intentional acts of kindness, and gratitude. KyndHub gamifies kindfulness to help companies build a kindful culture and improve the mental wellness of their employees by encouraging them to do more great things in the community and for each other. 4
Justin Kruger, founder of KyndHub, suggests, "Practice Kindfulness to build mental wellness. Happiness does not come from success. Success comes from happiness."
Many companies are taking this spirit of being kind outside of the workplace as well. According to recent research by Deloitte and Network for Good, volunteering and workplace philanthropy are leading ways to improve employee engagement, productivity, and morale. 5
Shift Your View on Time
If you've faced a life-and-death scare, or if you have lost someone well before his or her time, you may have already started this. Time is the ultimate equalizer. No matter how much money we do (or don't) have, and no matter where we sit in the position of power (or not) in our communities, we all have the same amount of time. Our lives tend to revolve around the stress of work deadlines and daily chores and crises juxtaposed by periods of escape and exhaustion. No one ever got to their deathbed and said, "I wish that I worked harder."
Do you have a passion project? What's been calling you? What is that small, inner voice of expression that won't leave you alone until you do it? What is one small step that you can take to explore that? How can work teams support one another in helping these dreams come true? Do we dismiss our ideas as being unworthy or not relevant at work? Do we have guilt that our needs are not important and shouldn't be bothered with? What if we gave each other permission to do what ignites our souls—at work?
In the process of getting through the grind, can we celebrate the wins of the day? While celebrating the milestones of completing an audacious goal is worthy of cheering, to get there, it helps to acknowledge the many smaller steps along the way. Seeing the progress gives people encouragement when the finish line seems so far away.
My last suggestion on this point is to seek a daily adventure versus hiding behind your busywork. I know I often face a daily prickly tension of compulsively checking my email and social media versus shutting it down so that I can take a quick walk outside. Many times when we are so "busy," we are really just procrastinating, and all procrastination is about fear. So ask yourself what would you do if you knew you could live through your failure? Is ALL of your business really that important to the long view of your life?
Total Wellness Involves Mental Health and Resilience
CrossFit, yoga, clean-eating food plans, vitamin supplements, blood pressure screening, and cholesterol check-ups. All of these and other "wellness" practices have a good chance of helping us improve our physical health. But what about "mental wellness"—where does that fit in?
Most of us take our mental health for granted. We don't work on it like we do other forms of health, and then we are caught off guard when our mental health deteriorates under stressful circumstances. Building mental fitness takes daily practices of facing fears, holding stillness, understanding emotions, resolving conflict, reflecting on ourselves, receiving coaching to gain personal insight, and much more.
Resilience is like a mental muscle. It helps us bounce back when we've experienced hardship. The key in this shift is to think of yourself on a hero's journey, learning and gaining strength from your trials and tribulations. Consider this quote by Kevin Hines, a suicide attempt survivor and author of Cracked, Not Broken:
In the words of Nietzsche, "He who has a WHY to live can bear almost any HOW." I have certainly found my why. I refer back to this quote often when I stop to consider the challenges of day-to-day life and the things that I've struggled with over the course of the last 16 years…. Over a decade and a half ago, I attempted to die by suicide from my pain. I jumped off of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Kevin is my hero. He is steadfastly committed to his total wellness plan as he works to live with his mental health condition. He is living proof that daily practices increasing mental well-being saves lives and brings people back to a passion for living. 6
At work, we can incentivize emotional wellness like we do other forms of health. We can encourage self-screening for depression, anxiety, and substance use problems. 7 Workplaces can offer mental health literacy trainings 8 to increase our understanding of conditions such as bipolar illness, addiction, and trauma responses. By proactively integrating mental health into overall health priorities at work, we can catch emerging problems earlier and ward off the risky distraction and fatigue that can come with an unwell mind. Furthermore, a healthy brain in a person with strong emotional intelligence has more capacity to withstand transition and solve problems under duress.
Experience the Awe in the Beauty That Is Now
"Your life is not happening somewhere else, the action is here."
Source: Rob Bell, author of Love Wins
When we are so caught up in the future, we forget that we are actually living now. We can miss the incredible beauty of everyday moments when our mind is consumed with all that is going wrong.
I travel quite a bit for work, and while I miss the comforts of home and my family very much, I try to practice this art of being fully present as I make a regular commitment to run in the early morning of each new city I visit. As I wander around in wonder, I think about the history of the place, smell the aroma of coffee wafting, feel the new sun gracing my shoulders, and so on. I intentionally look for the story the place is telling me, and I have been known to take a few pictures along the way.
A recent Harvard Business Review article 9 states that mindfulness is another type of focused attention that can have benefits at work by getting people off autopilot and into the moment at hand. I'm asking you to consider taking this meditative process one step farther, to find the awe in everyday living while being in the moment.
Can we infuse this awe-inspiration into our work spaces? Retreats? Meetings? 10 As a general practice, when we are feeling hopeless and overwhelmed, we can ask ourselves, "How can I improve this moment?" 11
In closing, remember this quote by Frederick Koenig, "We tend to forget that happiness doesn't come as a result of getting something we don't have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have."
The author would like to thank and acknowledge the contributions to this Commentary by Kevin Hines, an associate with Art of Wellness, Justin Kruger, an associate with KyndHub, and Mary McClatchey, an associate with WorkSmart Partners.