By Lori A. Hoffner


Mental health has become a hot topic recently. Workforces in all industries continue to cope with the lingering effects of a global pandemic. And, although the pandemic resulted in many horrific statistics, the statistics related to mental health cannot be ignored. The isolation that people experienced during the pandemic increased stress and anxiety about the future, both in and outside of the workplace. With more than 80% of the global workforce feeling that the coronavirus pandemic negatively impacted their mental health, employees reporting symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorders have increased by 11% since 2019. Currently, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults aged 18 and older, every year. There has also been an increase in substance and alcohol use and abuse. 

The pandemic put a spotlight on various issues related to mental health. But it now becoming a hot topic only perpetuates the stigma and taboo around it. Mental health issues were common prior to COVID, affecting one in five adults, and with the increase in reported stress, depression and anxiety, it’s likely that this number will only increase. Therefore, we should feel as comfortable talking about mental health as we do our physical health – eliminating its stigma. And, since we spend approximately one third of our lives at work, it’s imperative that we improve the discussion surrounding mental health in the workplace so as to make it easier for employees to get the organizational support they need before reaching a crisis point. To put it in dollars and cents, mental illness and substance abuse cost employers an estimated $80 to $100 billion each year when not addressed. 

Multiple studies have shown that one way to combat situational depression and anxiety is by being outside, as well as physical activity. Take for instance, the outdoor opportunities provided by park and recreation agencies. Parks, trails, aquatics and outside programming have always provided a great outdoor experience, as well as physical activity. The increase of outdoor recreation usage is a clear sign that more individuals are seeking out activities that can improve their overall mental health. However, with that growth comes challenges, such as additional maintenance or programming and the added need for a strong, reliable workforce. Unfortunately, like many other industries, park and recreation agencies are reporting the lack of applicants and eligible candidates resulting in fewer staff members who will take on more work. Ultimately, this contributes to the stress that today’s workforce is reporting, which is impacting overall mental health and creating higher rates of burnout and turnover. Burnout is not new, but with the increased demands of the job and the lack of bodies to help with the workload, the number of employees leaving is increasing. A direct impact on mental health, burnout is yet another argument for the necessity of open and honest conversations about the topic and creating reliable help-seeking environments. 

Finally, let’s talk about trauma. Traumatic events can leave psychological symptoms long after any physical injuries have healed, and psychological trauma can cause a wide range of physical and emotional symptoms. Different levels of trauma include:

  • Acute trauma resulting from a single stressful or dangerous event.
  • Chronic trauma resulting from repeated and prolonged exposure to highly stressful events, including cases of child abuse, bullying or domestic violence.
  • Complex trauma resulting from exposure to multiple traumatic events.

It’s not just the ongoing stresses and lingering effects of the pandemic and the excessive workloads many are facing – this is coupled with traumatic events, such as floods and fires and even vandalism – plus the recovery necessary from such events. These all create a level of trauma. These types of events impact mental health, and unless we are willing to talk about it and seek out support, it has the potential to become a mental health crisis.

In addition to normalizing the conversation around mental health, other ideas that will further reduce the stigma include;

  1. Identify resources that your organization offers to provide support, such as an employee assistance program (EAP) or other behavioral health services.
  2.  Empower employees to help provide solutions that will best serve them.
  3. Offer trainings to staff that address mental health concerns. i.e., Mental Health First Aid, Question-Persuade-Refer (QPR) or safeTALK for suicide awareness.
  4. Develop workplace ambassadors that know how to talk with their peers.
  5. Help employees reduce – not just manage – stress. Self-care practices, for example, are an important process in which every individual can engage. 
  6. Recognize, access and practice team and individual resiliency habits. 
  7. Beyond offering outdoor recreation and physical activity, find ways to engage in those activities.

It’s important to remember that mental health is closely connected to every area of wellbeing. Our physical health, financial wellness and social support systems heavily influence our state of mind. When employees feel like their whole selves are recognized in the workplace, they are more engaged and productive. We, for the sake of our workforce’s mental wellness, should be willing to go above and beyond so that they can lend their best selves to the business.

Lori A. Hoffner, Organizational Development Speaker & Trainer helps people and organizations create open, positive and inclusive environments through her speaking, training and consulting. Since 2009, Lori has had the pleasure of working with audiences across the country to help them learn, grow and develop positive practices for their organizations. If you want more information on the topics of mental health and workshops that Lori can provide, please contact us.