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EveryDay Strong: A simple tool to help fight anxiety and depression in the workplace

January 27, 2019

Anxiety and depression is a growing issue in our community, and businesses aren’t immune.

As I’ve networked in the valley, a surprising number of business owners tell me that this is one of their great concerns. You should be concerned — beyond just the human compassion that we all share, the American Psychiatric Association says that anxiety-associated poor job productivity and short-and-long term work disability result in more than $4.1 billion in indirect workplace costs.

Many people assume that you have to know what’s causing someone’s anxiety or depression before you can be helpful. Do they need different medication? Is there an addiction problem? Maybe it’s a family or religious issue.

The problem is, you often can’t ask these kinds of questions in the workplace. And on the other hand, the issues that underlie the anxiety or depression may be so huge that they’re beyond the scope of what an employer can do anything about.

Here’s the good news. You don’t have to know everything about a person’s exact circumstances to be able to start being helpful and compassionate. Modern psychology actually puts forward that the things people need in order to thrive are universal. If you learn what those needs are, you can become a supportive person in their life.

What are those universal needs? There’s a helpful framework I learned from Dr. Matt Swenson, who is a child psychiatrist at Intermountain Healthcare. It’s called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You might remember this from high school or college Psych 101. This is a brilliant and underappreciated little bit of psychology.

Having your physical needs (like food and sleep) met are the foundation to all well-being. After that, people crave a sense of emotional safety: safe to talk, safe to feel, safe to be themselves. Connection and friendship is the next universal need, and that doesn’t have to mean long lunches or Ping-Pong tournaments; it can be as simple as a shared joke in a meeting. The final need is a feeling of confidence or competence. The best way to help someone feel confident? Express confidence in her. Remind him of what he’s good at. Help her practice for an upcoming presentation or teach him a new skill that will help him in his job.

So, when your employee or co-worker seems to be having an unusually hard time and you aren’t sure how to help, these levels of needs can help you brainstorm how you can be supportive and caring. Start at the bottom: bring them a snack or buy them lunch; ask when was the last time they slept. Work on being a safe person who they can talk to about their mistakes, failures and struggles by validating them and being open-mined. Try to find small but meaningful ways to connect, and build their confidence by complimenting their work or reiterating your belief in their abilities.

This framework might seem so simple it’s almost childish. However, I want you to imagine for a moment that the people in your life (your boss, spouse, friends, or co-workers) were aware of your needs and looked for ways to care for those needs. Imagine they spent time thinking of ways to help you feel more safe, connected or confident. How would your performance change? How would your relationship with those people change? We don’t spend enough time thinking about other people’s needs and ways to care for them; it can be absolutely transformative when someone does.

By yourself, you won’t be able to solve all the problems of someone who is anxious or depressed. Nothing will magically change overnight. But Maslow taught us that what a person needs to be happy is the same as what they need to be resilient. It equals wellness. And it’s the beginning of overcoming anxiety, depression and the other difficulties that so many people are going through.

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