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Though the pandemic may be slowly fading from view, employers are still dealing with lingering effects such as the worker shortage, supply-chain issues and inflation. However, for many businesses, employees’ mental wellbeing, and how it’s managed in the workplace, is having a more significant impact on operations than ever before. 

“A lot of restaurants are … wondering where they’re going to find workers right now. The people that are working are working hard,” says Kathy Stephan, operations manager for Hospitality Group Holdings, which operates several casual dining concepts in Cape Coral, including Fathoms Restaurant & Bar, The French Press, Gather and Black Salt. “Most of the stress comes from the shortage of workers and putting more responsibility and more hours on the employees that we do have.

“You really want to keep everybody in the right state of mind to make the wheels turn and everything work together,” she says. “Having an employee that’s stressed creates a little bit more tension, and that can trickle down the line to the other employees. Once we see it, we say, ‘Why don’t you take this next day off?’”

The same factors that are influencing the hospitality and service industries are making an impact on many other business sectors, as well. And although an employee’s stress and anxiety may be less noticeable in a work-from-home office or warehouse environment, it can still affect the bottom line. For most employers, mitigating those effects should start with learning more about—and understanding—stress and mental illness. 

“Anxiety is a mental illness. [Mental illness] is not just bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Depression, trauma, PTSD, obsessive-compulsiveness; all these things are mental illnesses that fall under the umbrella of stress,” says Esther Mugomba-Bird, a board-certified psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner with NCH Physician Group—Center for Behavioral Health. “Be aware and understand that mental illness exists and is affecting your employees. What can you do to alleviate the stress as well as be available?”

While awareness of workplace stress and triggers is important, another significant element in improving mental wellbeing in the workplace is to understand the stigma surrounding mental illness. To overcome that stigma, Mugomba-Bird said, employers also should try to be more engaged with their employees. 

“The biggest thing in mental health is that lack of support. Inclusion is very important. People like to be listened to. Ask people, ‘What are you going through? Let me understand.’ Allow that person to openly talk to you without feeling all the repercussions,” she says. “We need to talk about [mental health]. We need to acknowledge it as just another illness … just as we look at any other condition when somebody has high blood pressure or diabetes.”

Moving beyond the stigma around mental health and engaging employees to acknowledge their mental wellbeing are ideal first steps, Mugomba-Bird said. But whether the triggers are in the workplace or elsewhere, actively looking for signs of employees struggling with their mental health, and taking action to help those workers, is hugely important as well. It’s a lesson that Kathy Stephan has taken to heart. 

“Shortage of staff is probably our main trigger and … we’re busier than we’ve ever been in our lives. We’re not open on Mondays at all now because of the shortage of staff and not wanting to overwork our workers,” Stephan says. “I find myself on the floor and at the front of the house checking in on my staff all the time. It’s just listening to your staff and making sure that they’re in a good state of mind. It’s better to kind of face it head-on and recognize that maybe these people just need a tiny bit of a reprieve … to give them a little bit of a mental break.”  

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