4 min read

Unlock Employee Mental Fitness: A Guide for Leaders on the 80-20 Rule

Unlock Employee Mental Fitness: A Guide for Leaders on the 80-20 Rule

Each of us carries an invisible backpack containing our personal adversity load, social determinants, circumstances, and physical health, which influences the energy drained as we move through our day.

However, this may not get the attention it deserves in the workplace. Many employees feel discouraged, challenged, and stressed daily by life and work and likely have not been taught how to develop mental fitness habits to help them flourish.

On any given day, one in four employees experiences a mental health concern. In a recent EY study, 82% of workers indicated they have felt lonely at work. Better Up research reported that 60% of employees are languishing (i.e., feeling blah) or suffering mentally daily. Research conducted with the Conference Board of Canada found that 69% of employees felt half-charged or less.

Mental fitness practices are behaviours and habits that help us manage our well-being and minimize the drain we experience. These habits include regular exercise, diet, rest, hydration, cold plunges, saunas, sleep, deep breathing, and a clear sense of purpose.

While these practices fall to the individual, I have found through research that successful mental fitness programs are built on two-way accountability and active participation of employees and employers.

As leaders, we can start by recognizing the vital role we play in the well-being of our employees. We must be selective about the individuals we promote into leadership roles and the psychological safety knowledge and skills they possess. We should also be selective about the programs we introduce and diligent about monitoring and evaluating them to ensure they hit the mark.

Mental fitness requires a steady approach and long term commitment

Building mental fitness in the workplace involves more than mental health and resiliency training and providing apps. Mental health is influenced by what we learn, the conscious and unconscious habits we observe and practice, and our experiences (i.e., challenges, successes, and failures) at work and home.

Putting the burden on employees to do all the work to be mentally fit typically fails. There is low adherence, and if their experience at work is not aligned with what is being promoted, they won’t trust that there is any value in making change.

We can take a systemic approach to creating a workplace culture that minimizes negative experiences and offers more opportunities for employees to feel positively charged. We can set the tone to help employees flourish rather than languish in organizations.

Flourishing employees are more mentally fit

Dr. Martin Seligman, the “founding father of flourishing,” teaches that flourishing is finding fulfillment in our lives, accomplishing meaningful and worthwhile tasks, and connecting with others at a deeper level—essentially, living the “good life.”

Employees who start their day feeling marginalized, experiencing a mental health concern, feeling isolated, lonely, or languishing rarely feel super excited about feeling better. They often believe their current circumstances and workplace environment are a significant drain and that change is out of their control.

The above data suggests that on any given day, 60%-70% of the workforce is languishing or struggling with a mental health concern. For this population to successfully engage and benefit from a mental fitness program, employers must understand the influence of external locus of control, the belief that a person’s fate is determined by their environment, independent of hard work. 

We can profoundly impact our employees’ mindset, motivation, confidence and willingness to initiate behavioural change by creating a work environment where our leaders understand and promote psychological safety and mental fitness and know how to manage and organize workload to limit unnecessary drains.

Applying the 80-20 rule to help employees flourish 

Flourishing and thriving employees are less dependent on the environment and typically operate from an internal locus of control. They believe in self-determination and can make 80% of the effort alone but still benefit 20% from the environment. This population represents 20%-30% of most workforces on any given day. They typically arrive fully charged and satisfied and bounce back fairly quickly when they have bad days.

Flourishing individuals usually have healthy relationships and are less bothered by office politics or work stress. They are more likely to engage in mental fitness habits and, when given a mental fitness/resiliency app, view it as a tool to support and maintain their well-being.

It takes constancy and effort to move languishing employees to this place. Success won’t come from placing the onus on them to make the needed changes. They need to experience opportunities to flourish and have experiences and interactions consistent with what is being taught and promoted.

Tips for facilitating the 80-20 rule

  • Educate your employees about mental fitness. Ensure employees are clear on the difference between mental health and mental illness. Educate them on what it means to be flourishing vs. languishing. Help them understand the behaviors and habits that they can control and the steps you are taking in the workplace to increase the potential for their success. Consider introducing an opportunity for every employee to develop a personal mental fitness plan supported by their manager and the organization. 

  • Implement mental fitness programs versus content. Many workplace mental health programs focus on delivering information and content with little emphasis on habit creation. Programs require evaluation to ensure they are doing what they are supposed to do. An effective mental fitness program will be integrated and aligned with all employer programs and initiatives to support the employee experience. 

  • Encourage employees to take action and practice healthy habits. It can take up to 66 days for new information to become an unconscious habit and sometimes up to 254 days. Shaping the Human Experience: Taming the complexity of simple guides employers in facilitating habit development. To impact mental fitness and resiliency, employers must accept that random, 60-minute webinars help facilitate awareness but do little to develop habits.

Successful mental fitness programs require consideration and planning for the 80-20 rule. Layering in incentives, accountability partners, time for practice, rewards, and recognition can help drive engagement and adherence and move more employees from languishing to flourishing. 

You won't know if you're successful if you don't evaluate

Using a Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) approach helps ensure that we invest time and money into programs and initiatives that deliver value. PDCA also shapes and influences micro-decisions, behaviour, and habits that support employees' well-being and mental fitness.

Ensure you are equipped with the baseline information you need and that you are tracking psychosocial risk factors and hazards, prevention and support policies, and programs to know if your efforts and investments are having the desired impact. Without measurement or follow-up to ensure accountability and learning, we aren't likely to change behaviours or create new habits that help our team members flourish.

The end goal of an effective mental fitness program is to create employer and employee habits that positively influence employees' experience and emotional well-being. Successful programs and policies are evaluated through an intersectional lens to ensure they are accessible and valued by all employees.

Workplace experiences profoundly impact employees' emotional well-being and mental fitness. The good news is that it is within our control to create an environment of hope and inspiration by weaving mental fitness into organizational sustainability goals and recognizing that every interaction presents an opportunity to charge or drain positively and directly impact employees' mental fitness and well-being.

Get to know the author – Dr.  Bill Howatt 


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