Empowering the Workplace Interview: George Stern from Phil Zen LLC Shares Insights on Nurturing Mental Health Awareness and Support in Organizations

by Jed Morley

In an ever-evolving business landscape, the well-being of employees has taken center stage as organizations recognize the critical importance of fostering mental health awareness and support within the workplace. To delve into the strategies, insights, and experiences that drive this essential transformation, we embarked on a comprehensive interview series titled “Empowering the Workplace: Fostering Mental Health Awareness and Support.”

Name: George Stern
Company: Phil Zen LLC

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Table of Contents

What are some key strategies for organizations to identify and address early signs of mental health issues among employees? Share your insights and experiences on implementing proactive measures.

George Stern: Don’t forget your work-from-home employees!

At Phil Zen, we specialize in helping people create healthy, productive, and creative home offices. While we existed before the pandemic, our phone has been ringing off the hook since COVID first caused widespread office shutdowns and a work-from-home transformation. People were reaching out not just because of the practical reason that they needed to outfit their home offices quickly. They also wanted to do so – and the more long-term-minded employers who care about productivity and retention wanted them to do so – in a healthy and sustainable way.

Healthy, of course, means physical AND mental. And the two must be considered together, because they have direct impacts on each other. Most people have accepted by now that sitting for 8 (or more) hours a day in an old-school office chair is terrible for the body. But just as importantly, working in an inadequate office setup is bad for the mind – for mental health – too.

Here are three things companies should be doing to ensure their work-from-home employees aren’t suffering from work-environment-caused mental health issues:

1) Recognize the stressful reality. The image many paint of working from home is an employee in PJs on the couch casually answering emails while watching TV and eating comfort food.

The reality is an employee glued to their desk for video call after video call, in a cramped corner of a bedroom or kitchen, working longer hours than usual because the work-home balance has eroded, with distracting kids and pets and doorbell ringers popping up at any time.

It’s stressful! And stress is, of course, problematic. It takes a physical toll and a mental one – it can lead to anxiety, tossing and turning in bed at night, diminished ability to focus, decreased motivation, and bad moods. Doesn’t sound like an ideal employee, does it?

2) Encourage activity. The most important thing we can do to relieve that mental stress – and to relieve the physical stress of sitting for far too many hours – is to be active. Being active gets your blood circulating, which, as it turns out, happens to be a phenomenal, research-backed antidote for relieving stress.

This doesn’t have to mean long exercise breaks or treadmill desks. Step one is “active sitting.” There are chairs and desks made for this specific purpose – chairs that encourage good posture, kneeling chairs that let people sit in ergonomically superior positions, combo chairs that allow both, standing desks, adjustable desks for sitting and standing, and on and on. Indeed, being active can mean simple, furniture-based adjustments to our workplaces, and it comes with significant benefits.

3) Embrace other simple workplace adjustments. Environmental psychology evokes eye-roles from some employers. Mention the impact that interior design elements can have on employee productivity and you may get laughed out of more old-school companies. But the data is real.

Neuroscience research has shown again and again that proper setups can evoke positive emotional responses, leading to mentally healthier and more productive and creative employees. Principles include less severe lighting, more soothing shapes and designs, and more plants. Again, this doesn’t have to be complicated, and we’re here to help offer simple ideas to improve offices of any size or location.

How can companies create a supportive environment for employees to openly discuss mental health and seek help when needed? Share examples of successful communication and resources that have made a difference in your organization.

George Stern: Walk the walk – it’s that simple! As we described above, helping employees be more active has demonstrable positive impacts on mental and physical health, and as a result, productivity and satisfaction. Here are three concrete ideas employers can implement to help employees be more active:

1) Provide a home-office set-up stipend. We know, we know, you’ve already spent your furniture budget on your actual commercial offices. (As an aside, that furniture needs to encourage healthy and productive work too – you need to update it if it doesn’t.) But there will be measurable productivity and employee satisfaction (meaning retention) gains in having healthy home offices.

It will be a long-term financial benefit, not cost, to help your employees invest in a healthy home office set-up. Then, to get employees openly discussing it, have them share ideas for what they bought or how they improved their offices.

2) Encourage breaks. While active sitting is great, and it’s how we at Phil Zen stay in business, the ideal is getting employees truly active and away from their desks. One idea we’ve seen work particularly well is to schedule meetings for 25 or 50 minutes, rather than 30 or 60. Then, actually end them on time and encourage employees to use a few of those 5 or 10 minutes not just to check email or run to the bathroom, but to get out of their chair and stretch, or breath, or do a plank, or a brief meditation, or simply stare out the window at nature.

All of those things (even just staring at nature) have research-backed positive impacts on energy, mood, and productivity. It shouldn’t shock you to hear that the flip side, back to back to back meetings that are constantly running over and overlapping each other, is terrible for physical and mental health. When you start a new call, use the “how was your weekend” small-talk minute to get employees sharing what they did with their 10-minute break – both to encourage openly discussing mental health exercises, and to create a positive peer pressure culture of active breaks.

3) Encourage extended time away from the desk. Another idea we’ve seen work well is to take a hard look at the meetings you’re requiring to be video-based. Could it be a phone call instead? Allow and encourage your employees to take a meeting or two each day while walking outside.

Normalize the sound of birds (or even car horns if you’re in a city) in the background of your non-external calls. When you hear those noises, compliment employees for getting outside the way you would praise them when they burn the midnight oil to get something done – both are signs of productive employees.

What role can training and education play in fostering mental health awareness in the workplace? Share your experience with impactful workshops, seminars, or training programs that have contributed to a better understanding and support of mental health among employees.

George Stern: The most successful companies we work with from a mental health perspective eliminate the stigma of mental health by talking about it openly at all levels all the time. Not just an optional training that only a few will attend, nor a mandatory webinar that people will have on in the background while checking their email.

But intentional conversations daily. As we noted above, ask people to share things they’re doing to stay mentally healthy. “Let me see your office setup – what a cool chair!” “How’s your plant doing?” “What did everyone do to stay sharp today – breathing? Walk outside to get the mail?” “Anyone recommend a meditation app?” “I hear that wind in the background – can still hear you just fine and nice job getting outside, by the way.”

Mental health still has a stigma. We don’t get over stigmas by having annual mandatory webinars on the importance of using HR-available mental health resources. We get over them by daily modeling – at all levels of the organization – how normal it is to care about mental health. It should be as common to tell someone about your meditation routine or breathing exercises as it is about the run or bike ride you went on.

Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to WellnessVoice and the host of this interview would like to thank George Stern for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.

If you would like to get in touch with George Stern or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page

Disclaimer: The WellnessVoice Community welcomes voices from many spheres on our open platform. We publish pieces as written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team and must meet our guidelines prior to being published.

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