The Value of a Psychologically Healthy Workplace

We all know that work, in any form, has a significant effect on our emotional and psychological well-being for better or for worse—in particular, the quality and psychological health of the workplace environment. As research is increasingly showing, a negative work environment can lead to a number of physical and mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

A toxic work environment has also been linked to insufficient sleep, which increases the risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, and over time has been associated with a shortened lifespan.

Not to mention the economic impact that the poor mental health of its employees has on companies and organizations. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), five of the 10 leading causes of disability worldwide are mental health related and the estimated cost to the global economy is approximately US $1 trillion per year in lost productivity:

Workplaces that promote mental health and support people with mental disorders are more likely to increase productivity and reduce absenteeism, thus benefiting from the associated economic gains. Employees’ mental health problems and their impact on an enterprise’s productivity and disability/medical costs are critical human resource issues. Employers’ organizations, trade unions and government policy-makers are realizing that the social and economic costs of mental health problems in the workplace cannot be ignored.

Mental Health Issues

Mental health issues can manifest in a variety of ways in the workplace, including:

  • Calling in sick often
  • Withdrawal/isolation
  • Personality changes 
  • Difficulty focusing and remembering details
  • Difficulty organizing thoughts and tasks
  • Other cognitive challenges

The Vitamin Model

A framework for looking at how our environment affects our well-being is the Vitamin Model of Mental Health. As its name suggests, the Vitamin Model is based on an analogy of the relationship between vitamins and physical health.

According to researchers Maria Jahoda and Peter Warr, the presence of certain psychological features of the environment—or "environmental vitamins" so to speak—though important for psychological well-being, will have varying effects as their level increases. 

For example, vitamins such as A and D, though essential for health, can be harmful when consumed in large quantities. However, other vitamins such as C and E, which are also essential to health, can be consumed in large quantities with no adverse effects.

The Vitamin Model was originated primarily to provide a more general perspective on how the psychological features of any environment affect mental health and well-being. It has since been applied to happiness or unhappiness in settings including the work environment.

The model posits that the well-being of employees and that of the organization correlates with the following 12 characteristics of a healthy workplace environment:

  1. Opportunity for personal control, covering variables conventionally labeled as discretion, decision latitude, participation
  2. Opportunity for skill use and acquisition
  3. Externally generated goals ranging across job demands, underload and overload, task identity, role conflict, required emotional labor, and work-home conflict
  4. Variety in job content and location
  5. Environmental clarity, role clarity, task feedback, and low future ambiguity
  6. Social support, quality and quantity of social interactions
  7. Availability of money and resources
  8. Physical security—working conditions, degree of hazard, and similar themes
  9. Valued social position in terms of the significance of a task or role
  10. Supportive supervision
  11. Career outlook, either as job security, as opportunity for advancement, or for a shift to other roles
  12. Equity as justice both within one’s organization and in that organization’s relations with society

The Healthy Workplace

The American Psychological Association’s (APA) Center for Organizational Excellence is committed to enhancing the functioning of individuals, groups, organizations, and communities through the application of psychology to a broad range of workplace issues. 

The Center's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program (PHWP) is a public educational initiative whose purpose is to engage employers, raise awareness about the value of applying psychology to the workplace, and to promote programs and policies that enhance employee well-being and organizational performance. Core to the PHWP are the APA's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards and its Organizational Excellence Awards.

According to the APA, the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards were designed to "recognize organizations for their efforts to foster employee health and well-being while enhancing organizational performance." In addition to the Psychologically Healthy Workplace awards, each year a single organization is chosen to receive the Organizational Excellence Award, highlighting the effective application of psychology in the workplace, including practices that promote employee well-being and performance. 

What past award winners have in common is that they have all implemented a comprehensive set of workplace practices that foster the center's mission and commitment to employee psychological well-being. They also share many of the same components promoted in the Vitamin Model, including autonomy, participation in decision-making, utilization of valued skills, availability of feedback, absence of job future ambiguity, adequate privacy, good relationship with others, social support, occupational prestige and meaningfulness of job.

Below are some further components that have been correlated with employee and organization well-being:

  • Addressing mental health stigma: Extending employee assistance programs, informing staff that support is available
  • Employee involvement: Empowering employees by involving them in decision-making and giving them more job autonomy
  • Healthy scheduling: Offering employees flexible work scheduling and other benefits such as flex time that help them manage the demands they face both inside and outside of work
  • Growth and development: Opportunities for continuing education, tuition reimbursement, and leadership development
  • Wellness programs: Benefits that help employees optimize their physical and mental health and develop healthy lifestyles, such as stress-management, weight-loss, and smoking-cessation programs
  • Employee recognition: Rewarding employees both monetarily and non-monetarily through performance-based bonuses and pay increases, profit-sharing, employee awards programs and genuine expressions of thanks

Because of the stigma associated with mental disorders, employers need to ensure that individuals feel supported and are provided with the necessary resources to do their job. 

Psychologist Dr. Jacinta Jiménez describes psychological safety as "a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves and one that allows employees to feel respected and included." This is especially true for teams. "If team members frequently do not feel they are in a group that is safe for interpersonal risk-taking, motivation, morale, creativity, and even innovation can drop.” Further, says Jiménez, "Employees who work in strength-based organizations stay with their company longer, feel more engaged, learn their roles more quickly, and produce higher quality work."

Julie Zadow, chief marketing officer of TalentFirst, has spent two decades in the human capital management space working with companies to create productive, supportive working environments to enable the best performances from their employees. Throughout her career, she has invested in a mission to galvanize organizations and leaders worldwide to create a more human workplace. According to Zadow:

With Gallup estimating that over half of the workforce is not engaged,most organizations will fall far short of their goal to reach their true ‘people potential.’ So the question becomes, how do organizations move the meter on employee engagement?”It’s really quite simple. When people feel valued for their work, when leaders work hard to ‘catch people doing something right’ and share praise and feedback widely and often, employees feel better. They feel more committed, they are happier at work, and they are more engaged. And when workplace happiness goes up, guess what? Productivity rises right alongside it. The best perk is the one that costs the least: a flexible attitude.

Accommodations at Work

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an "equal opportunity" law for people with disabilities, protects those with a physical and mental disability, which it defines as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. This includes a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.

Some examples of reasonable accommodations that employees can request include altered breaks and work schedules (scheduling work around medical appointments and allowing time off for treatment), changes in supervisory methods, eliminating a non-essential job function that someone cannot perform because of a disability, a quiet office space or devices that create a quiet work environment, and permission to work from home.

Further, if an employee has been working successfully in a job but can no longer do so because of a new disability, the ADA also may require reassignment to a vacant position that the employee can perform.

A Word From Verywell

The quality of our work environment, in any industry, has a significant impact on our emotional, psychological, and physical well-being. As is the case with any harmful condition, the best intervention is prevention. For organizational leaders, paying attention to creating psychologically healthy work environments is not only crucial to the health of the company but, more importantly, to its people.

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Article Sources
  • Briner, R.B. (2000). Relationships between Work Environments, Psychological Environments and Psychological Well-being. Occupational Medicine, Volume 50, Issue 5, 1 July 2000, Pages 299–303.

  • Warr, P. (2016). Happiness and Mental Health: A Framework of Vitamins in the Environment and Mental Processes in the Person. Handbook of stress and health: A guide to research and practice. London and New York.

  • Warr, P. (2018). Jobs and Happiness. Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology.