Back to Basics in Mental Health

Workplace settings with significant “companionate love” have a positive effect on the emotional well-being of employees. So what is that?

Is an age-old four-letter word the key to emotional well-being in the workplace?

Even before COVID-19, the prevalence of mental illness among adults was increasing. In 2017-2018, 19% of adults experienced a mental illness, an increase of 1.5 million people over last year’s dataset. As we know, mental health can significantly impact worker productivity, costs, and morale.

One way to begin addressing this serious problem is to improve workplace culture. Research conducted by Sigal Barsade, Wharton management professor, and Olivia O’Neill, professor of management at George Mason University, showed that workplace settings with significant  “companionate love”* have a positive effect on the emotional well-being of employees. In addition, they found that when employees feel cared for, they are more engaged in their work and willing to come to work.

Demonstrate companionate love by knowing your employees

What does companionate love look like at work? Imagine your co-worker bringing you a cup of coffee, expressing interest in your personal life, and showing you compassion and concern when things aren’t going well. Employees who behave this way in the workplace encourage others to behave in a similar manner. This fosters close working relationships and the feeling of being cared for which supports the mental and emotional well-being of all employees.**

“[The researchers] found that companies with higher levels of companionate love had lower levels of absenteeism and employee burnout. The researchers also discovered that a culture of companionate love led to higher levels of employee engagement with their work via greater teamwork and employee satisfaction.”

Company leaders have the responsibility to become role models for this more compassionate approach to day-to-day interactions. It can start by simply conveying empathy when an employee is struggling. Leaders should make sure to reach out if there are signs of emotional distress and offer resources for  employees to obtain the help they need.

Here are some distress signs to look for:

  • Absenteeism
  • Inadequate job performance or carelessness
  • Poor co-worker relationships
  • Excessive worrying, fear, sadness, or mood changes
  • Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
  • Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
  • Difficulties relating to other people, avoiding friends and social activities
  • Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
  • Changes in eating habits; increased hunger or lack of appetite
  • Difficulty perceiving reality or inability to perceive changes in oneself
  • Abuse of substances (alcohol or drugs)

Weaving healthy habits into work life

Beyond staying in touch with employees, how does an employer get proactive about solutions? Don’t wait until a crisis occurs! Start now! Develop a workplace culture that supports the emotional health of your employees. Create an environment that promotes psychological safety, where everyone feels comfortable talking about their emotional well-being and asking for help if they need it. It means calling out stigma whenever it is heard, and confidentially educating employees who use stigmatizing language. In many companies, the best approach to moving the culture forward is enforcing a structure, much like leadership training and organizational effectiveness committees or workshops.

Here are some ideas for getting started:

  • Focus on emotional culture instead of just values such as teamwork, results, and innovation.
  • Pay attention to the emotions expressed by employees each day.
  • Design company policies that "foster greater affection, caring, compassion, and tenderness."
  • Be honest about your own mental health struggles as a leader.
  • Build connection by intentionally checking in with each of your direct reports on a regular basis.
  • Offer flexibility and be inclusive, always anticipating that situations and needs will change.
  • Communicate often. Remove stress where possible by clearly setting expectations.
  • Institute simple changes, like encouraging breaks every 45 minutes during the workday.
  • Include a mental health message or activity in all meetings.

*A type of love characterized by strong feelings of intimacy and affection for another person rather than strong emotional arousal in the other’s presence. In these respects, companionate love is distinguished from passionate love, but is high in intimacy and commitment.”

The help you need to support your employees

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