Anxiety is among the most prevalent mental health conditions. It affects 40 million adults in the U.S. — nearly 20% of the population.
Having an anxiety attack at work may be one of the most obvious effects of the illness, but generalized anxiety disorder can debilitate workers on the job in many other, often less visible, ways. Whether it's exacerbated by a stressful work environment, or members bring personal anxieties to the work site, poor mental health harms job performance, productivity, workplace engagement and collaboration with coworkers and managers. It's estimated that depression and anxiety have resulted in a $1 trillion loss worldwide annually.
How can union leaders step in to support members who struggle with anxiety? Let's explore some sound approaches.
Know Which Industries Are Most Affected by Mental Health Issues
According to a 2017 mental health study which surveyed 17,000 employees across 19 different industries, the three sectors with the unhealthiest work environments were manufacturing, retail, and food and beverage (including the grocery industry). Workers in these industries reported the highest levels of workplace stress and isolation. Some also admitted to avoiding vacations due to worries that things could fall apart at their jobs — or that they could lose their jobs entirely.
And according to U.S. suicide data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates between 2012 and 2015 were highest among males in construction. This could be attributed to several factors, including environmental stressors, an isolated culture and a reluctance to discuss personal issues. Men working in jobs related to installation, maintenance, and repair also had a high risk of suicide.
Knowing which industries face the heaviest impact from workplace anxiety and other mental health issues can help you teach members to spot and address anxiety on the job.
Partner With Employers to Implement Changes
Collaborating with employers to assess the prevalence of anxiety among workers is an essential first step in helping members improve their mental health. Start by pointing out the cost of mental health issues and anxiety attacks at work — both the personal toll for workers and the larger effect on the organization. Employers who leave worker anxiety unaddressed may have to contend with lower productivity and higher employer turnover. Without community and health resources, workers may abuse alcohol or other substances to cope with workplace stress, which in turn could lead to misconduct on the job, health issues and possibly hospitalization.
Employers should also play a role in educating members about the causes of workplace stress — typically when the work is so demanding that, due to a lack of time, ability or knowledge, it overwhelms workers. According to the World Health Organization, the root of the problem is generally poor organization in the workplace, a lack of employee control over their own work, poor working conditions or insufficient support from colleagues.
Union leaders should point out the importance of a healthy workplace culture. Employers have the means to develop programs and policies, improve communication and provide social support, so encourage them to incentivize healthy behaviors (and track the progress of those incentives). If employers don't know where to start, encourage them to make mental health self-assessment tools available to workers and offer free or subsidized clinical screenings and counseling.
Beyond employers at the top, workers should be equipped with the signs that they or someone else may be experiencing a mental health issue. Train managers to recognize when a worker is experiencing an anxiety attack and whether to encourage them to seek professional care. Although union member meetings also provide a chance to reinforce the benefits of mindfulness, breathing techniques, and stress management techniques, employers can host regular seminars related to these mental health strategies, along with distributing appropriate resources. If possible, employers should designate break areas for relaxation and quiet, allowing workers to recover from an anxiety attack at work or just rest.
Promote Mental Health Benefits
Workplace benefits greatly affect working conditions. Doing your part to ensure members have proper health insurance and other medical benefits is essential to preserving member health. Emphasize that development opportunities and two-way communication between managers and workers are integral to the well-being of employees. For example, consider asking workers for an anonymous survey describing their managers' leadership and communication styles.
Union boards can influence workplaces to support good mental health for everyone within them. By partnering with employers to provide initiatives and resources, you help show members that their safety always comes first.
Jackie Lam is a personal finance writer who has written for both Fortune 500 companies and fintech startups. In a former life, she worked in the communications department of an entertainment labor union. Now a full-time freelancer, she enjoys helping fellow freelancers build a successful business.