How can counselors support wellness for American workers?
Hello there! I want to invite you to take a quick break from your busy day to step back from your responsibilities and look at the bigger picture. Take a deep breath and close your eyes. Imagine yourself at the perfect job for you. Imagine yourself earning enough money that you are financially comfortable in your lifestyle. If money were not an issue and you could choose to do anything, what important work would you imagine yourself doing? What values do you bring to that work that give you a sense of meaning and vitality? What would your most balanced, productive, and exciting workday routine look like? What actions would you take to improve your mental and physical health at work? How would you make time in your day for family, friends, hobbies, and self-care?
Now, step back from these questions and imagine yourself towards the end of your life, looking back at all the things you have done in your imaginary, “perfect” job. What seems most important to you? What are you proud of? What would you change if you could go back?
Although we aren’t always able to achieve the “perfect” job, we can use this exercise to help people figure out what is important and meaningful. We can help clients choose important elements from their values that they can implement into their existing work lifestyle. As a counselor, I attempt to help clients gain insight and improve their occupational wellness by examining their core values, work-life balance, and personality factors that can be harnessed to empower clients to create a sense of meaning and vitality inside their existing work-life.
Employment and Stress Statistics
It is no secret that many Americans spend a lot of time at work. According to the US Department of Labor’s Employment Situation Summary, (as cited in: Short, 2016, Sept. 6), in August 2016, the Labor Force Participation Rate was approximately 62.8% and the Employment Population Ratio was 59.7% (as cited in: Short, 2016, Sept. 2). The Labor Force Participation Rate is an economic metric that represents the percentage of Americans who are in the labor force, while the Employment population ratio measures the percentage of Americans in the labor force who are employed. Furthermore, the Employment Situation Summary estimated that around 81 percent of Employment Population were employed 35 hours or more per week in 2016.
These figures show that in the month of August 2016, the majority of Americans (62.8% or approximately 253.9 million people) are currently participating in the labor force, whether participating in full-time work, part-time work, or actively looking for work. Out of the labor force, 59.7% or approximately 151.8 million people were employed in August 2016. By contrast, the unemployment rate was 4.7%, constituting 4.1 million Americans in the labor force without work while 37.2 million Americans were not in the labor force (USDOL, 2016, September).
According to the American Psychological Association's (APA) annual Stress in America Survey, in 2015, 65% of adults found work to be a significant source of stress and 67% of adults found money to be a very significant source of stress. Women rated their overall stress level at 5.3 out of 10 and men rated their overall stress level at 4.9 out of 10. Additionally, younger generations reported more stress than older generations, where millennials rated their average stress at 6.0 out of 10, while Gen Xers reported 5.8 out of 10, and Boomers reported 4.3 out of 10 (APA, 2015).
Why is Occupational Wellness important in counseling?
As we can see, many people are stressed out! The majority of Americans participate in the labor force and work full-time, part-time, or are unemployed and many Americans also report feeling stressed. It is beyond the scope of my post today to discuss the factors that cause work-related stress and burnout, but my point here is that maybe we can improve our techniques to help promote wellness at work in order to combat the increasing levels of stress that people are reporting.
Occupational Wellness is the ability to optimize the balance between work and personal life, reducing and preventing stress, and striving for satisfaction and meaning in life through working. Occupational Wellness is an important part of life for many Americans because most people spend a lot of their time and effort at work. Based on the Wheel of Wellness (Myers and Sweeney, 2005), “Work and Leisure” is the third life-task which fulfills many psychological needs. Work allows for the opportunity for people to pursue economic security and financial well-being, become productive in their industry, utilize talents and develop skills, pursue their interests, connect and network with colleagues, and develop an identity in their field of work, among others. Adler described work as the “most important task for the maintenance of life” (Myers & Sweeney, 2005, p. 26). Leisure is also an important aspect of occupational wellness, which provides people with pleasurable activities that are intrinsically satisfying, and allows people to engage their senses. Leisure is an interesting topic, but is outside my current purposes, and I will not discuss this topic further in this post.
How can counselors help people develop Occupational Wellness?
- Know the signs of burnout, stress, overworking, and fatigue.
- Counselors are already well attuned to the signs of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, which are often warning signs of burnout at work. Other signs of burnout might include lack of interest or engagement in work activities, feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, and failure. Work burnout occurs when a person is physically and mentally exhausted and not able to continue functioning effectively in the work environment. Usually, burnout occurs when a worker is chronically stressed and does not have the time, skills or resources to effectively cope with stress.
- It is essential that we educate our clients on the warning signs of burnout and help clients find more effective ways of coping with stress and burnout. We can also helping clients to incorporate the other aspects of wellness that will help them balance their lifestyle and prevent stress; self-care, exercise, proper nutrition, hydration, and sleep hygiene, among others.
- Work towards what clients truly want in their life’s work.
- People need to feel a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives, and the life’s work is an essential task that can help people accomplish this need. Counselors can help by connecting clients to their core values in order to help them find a sense of vitality and intrinsic motivation in their work. In my practice, I strive to start with a discussion of the client’s values because these will function in the context of the client’s work life as a powerful reinforcement for the behavioral changes that the client will choose to make. The ultimate goal is to help move the client closer to the person they want to be. I look at values as a compass that points the client in the direction in which they want to take their life’s work, and their short-term and long-term goals are like the steps they take along the journey.
- Build new skills and competencies in the work field.
- Keep it fresh! Don’t get stuck in your ways! Research shows that as we age, we tend to have less psychological flexibility, and it becomes more difficult to make changes. I try to help my clients use critical thinking and their creative talents to remain mentally sharp and to think of new ways of accomplishing tasks. I believe these processes especially benefit seasoned workers by helping these clients maintain confidence and adapt to the challenge of an evolving work environment.
- Cultivate work/life balance.
- I’m sure I’m not the only person who wants to spend quality time with my family and maintain the health of my personal relationships! Counselors can help clients explore solutions to negotiate work schedules and optimize their time spent at work in order to have more quality time with their families and loved ones at home. It’s important to note that optimal work/life balance can be achieved most effectively when clients spend some of their personal time engaging in self-care activities, such as: exercise, leisure, healthy eating, proper hygiene, adequate sleep, etc.
- Improve communication and assertiveness skills.
- This tip also ties in with the work/life balance, in that workers need to have effective communication skills to negotiate their workload with their colleagues and superiors. Counselors can help clients analyze their current communication styles and make improvements so that they can communicate their ideas, needs, and desires more effectively at work.
- Briefly, assertiveness is a communication style that respects the rights of self and others by speaking up for one’s own feelings, ideas, and needs while making space to listen to other’s constructive feedback. (By “rights,” I am referring to personal dignity, the right to feel safe from harm and discrimination, and the right to be respected.) Furthermore, assertiveness offers a framework to help people speak up when they feel that their rights have been violated without using aggressiveness. A basic form of assertiveness that I teach clients is the “I-statement,” which helps clients take responsibility for their feelings and thoughts. When used properly, assertive I-statements improve the likelihood of having a productive conversation that lead to solutions while also avoiding unnecessary escalation.
- An I-statement might sound like: “I feel frustrated when I don’t have enough time to complete all of the work you have asked me to do.”
- Optimize the work style to the worker’s personality type.
- Counselors can help clients evaluate their personality type using assessment tools like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to educate clients about work styles and factors that may improve their satisfaction and productivity at work. The Myers-Briggs offers information about choosing complementary occupations and work styles for each personality type. Although there is no one “right job” for a given personality, certain types of work and work styles seem to fit certain personality types better than other. Additionally, every person will function in their work environment in their own way, and helping the client understand the components of their personality may help them understand what they like, what they need, what they would like to do as well as things that hinder them from being productive, balanced, and satisfied at work.
- Optimize the work setting.
- Counselors can help clients evaluate factors in their work environment that increase or decrease their productivity and satisfaction at work. Some examples of environmental factors include physical comfort at the workplace, social factors like too much or too little interaction with coworkers, preventing safety hazards, discovering distractions and time-wasting habits, opportunities for exercise and mindfulness during the work day, and finding resources available to help them improve their work life.
- Counselors can advocate for occupational wellness in many settings.
- Although we can certainly help individual clients improve their occupational wellness, we also have the ability to influence society and industries to foster the development of wellness in the American workforce. As mental health advocates, we have a unique platform in our society from which we can present research, tools, and techniques to improve wellness in the American work life. If we speak up from the platform of our profession as counselors, I believe there are many businesses willing to listen and open to making changes to help improve the well-being for their workers. Not only will this serve the betterment of the quality of life in our society, but it will also benefit businesses who want to retain their happy, healthy, and productive workers.
American Psychological Association (2015). Stress Snapshot: 2015 Stress in America. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2015/snapshot.aspx
Myers, J. E., & Sweeney, T. J. (Eds.). (2005). Counseling for Wellness: Theory, Research, and Practice. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.
Short, D. (2016, September 2). A disappointing 151K new jobs in August. Advisor Perspectives. Retrieved from: http://www.advisorperspectives.com/dshort/updates/Employment-Report
Short, D. (2016, September 6). The ratio of part-time employed remains high, but improving. Advisor Perspectives. Retrieved from: http://www.advisorperspectives.com/dshort/updates/Full-Time-vs-Part-Time-Employment
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2016, September 2). Employment Situation Summary. (Economic News Release No. USDL-16-1771). Retrieved from: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.nr0.htm
Hanna Rodriguez is a counselor in training at McNeese State University, and is completing her internship at the McNeese Kay Dore Gambling Treatment Program in Lake Charles, Louisiana. She is interested in viewing mental health from a wellness perspective. Read more about Hanna at: