The role of emotional intelligence for supporting mental health at work
One of the biggest challenges employers face with addressing poor mental health at work is lack of disclosure from affected individuals due to stigma. Could emotional intelligence training help solve this problem?
A major new survey from the mental health charity Mind has found that poor mental health at work is widespread. Half of all employees surveyed reported having poor mental health, and of those who did, only half felt comfortable talking to their employer about it.
The findings echo those of the wider research literature, which has found that mental health problems, both clinical (e.g. depression and anxiety disorders) and sub-clinical (e.g. psychological distress) are very common in working populations.
According to the Centre for Mental Health, in 2017, mental health problems were estimated to have cost British organisations approximately £35 billion (or £1,300 per employee), a figure comprising increased staff turnover, reduced productivity and increased levels of sickness absence.
Clearly, the impact of poor mental health at work cannot be understated. Yet despite the high incidence and impact of mental health conditions, only a small percentage of employees raise their mental health difficulties with their employer, which can make prevention, management and treatment difficult.
Greater emotional intelligence at work is emerging as critically important, but first we need to take stock of why there is such continued stigma around mental health in the workplace.
The stigma around mental health in the workplace
One reason behind low levels of disclosure is the stigma many feel remains attached to mental health conditions.
This stigma (real or perceived) can take many forms, including: anticipated stigma (where the individual thinks or feels that they might be treated differently or unfairly in the future); experienced stigma (where the individual has already encountered a situation where they have been treated differently for having a mental health condition in the past); perceived stigma (where the individual feels that people in general have an unfavourable view of those with mental health conditions); internalised stigma (where the individual holds stigmatised views of themselves for having a mental health condition); and treatment stigma (where the individual feels that they will be treated differently or unfairly for seeking help with a mental health condition).
Mental health interventions
The sheer diversity of potential sources of stigma can often make it difficult for employers to know exactly how to tackle this issue within their own workplaces.
A variety of interventions have been developed to try and support employees who may be suffering with a mental health condition. These include the development of organisational policies, on-site counselling, and problem-focused return to work programmes.
Higher levels of emotional intelligence have been correlated with better overall mental health.
Emotional intelligence training, on the other hand, has been less explored. But this intervention has real potential to help combat poor mental health at work.
Emotional intelligence at work
In their important work, Emotional development and emotional intelligence: Educational implications, John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey defined emotional intelligence as “the ability to perceive emotions, use emotions to facilitate thought, understand emotions, and regulate emotions to promote personal growth”.
Emotionally intelligent employees have been associated with a wide range of desirable organisational outcomes including: higher teamwork effectiveness, increased job performance and organisational commitment.
In relation to mental health within the workplace, higher levels of emotional intelligence have been correlated with better overall mental health, increased job satisfaction and increased perceptions of social support from colleagues.
More support = more disclosure
An important finding from within the psychological literature suggests that higher levels of perceived emotional support within an organisation leads to a significantly increased disclosure rate of mental health conditions.
This is an important starting point for any organisation that is looking to accurately assess the overall state of their employees’ mental health.
A viable business solution
One reason why emotional intelligence training is emerging as a viable business solution to addressing workplace issues is the potential spillover effect.
Not only can highly emotionally intelligent employees identify and manage their own emotional wellbeing, but they may also be better placed to support and manage the emotional wellbeing of their colleagues too.
Emotional intelligence is a flexible tool that can help organisations to support their employees with mental health conditions.
Furthermore, the applications of emotional intelligence can extend beyond tackling mental health issues and help with the development of wider organisational success.
Managers who are able to positively influence the emotional climate of their team can strongly influence individual, group and organisational performance.
Emotional intelligence is therefore a flexible tool that can help organisations to support their employees with mental health conditions, develop a workplace culture that recognises the importance and value of emotions, and also leverage the power of emotional wellbeing to pursue wider strategic organisational goals.
A new (free) online resource to increase levels of emotional intelligence at work
If you are interested in learning more about the psychology of emotional intelligence and how it can be applied to workplace settings, Coventry University is offering a free emotional intelligence course called ‘Emotional Intelligence at Work’ as part of its wider MSc Business and Organisational Psychology degree on the FutureLearn platform.
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I am a Lecturer in Business & Occupational Psychology at Coventry University, Lead Educator on FutureLearn's free online course: Emotional Intelligence at Work, and author of Recruitment Toolkit.