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The Difference Between Mental and Emotional Health: What Your Organization Can Do to Support Both

We’re all talking more about mental and emotional health these days. While this is a positive development, it’s important for us to distinguish between the two terms. In this week’s blog article we give an overview of what is meant by mental health and emotional health, and how we can use this understanding to provide people with the right type of well-being support.

Mental vs. emotional health—what’s the difference?

While we sometimes use the terms “mental health” and “emotional health” interchangeably, they really are two different things:

Mental health is an overarching term which includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act.1 It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. It shouldn’t be confused with mental illness, which refers to a diagnosable mental disorder, like clinical depression, clinical anxiety, substance use disorder, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Emotional health is a subset or aspect of mental health and refers to our “ability to cope with both positive and negative emotions, including our awareness of them.” In general, emotionally healthy people tend to have good coping mechanisms for negative emotions.

Mental and emotional health work as a sort of tag team. Mental health helps us process information; emotional health is our ability to manage and express feelings which are based upon the information we’ve processed. Sometimes conditions we might be experiencing can hinder our ability to regulate our emotions. For example, if our cognitive functioning is impaired by anxiety, we might respond out of character to a last-minute change in plans or having to meet a new person.

How can we boost emotional health?

We certainly can’t control every situation in life and experiencing “negative” emotions is part of being human. Fortunately, there are things we can do to work on our emotional wellness so we can handle the challenges that life throws our way and respond appropriately. The National Institutes of Health Emotional Wellness Toolkit has some great tips for boosting emotional health, including ways to work on resilience, reducing stress, getting quality sleep, strengthening social connections, coping with loss, and being mindful.2

What can organizations do to support emotional health?

Well-being programs offer a range of tools to support emotional health and help employees improve their ability to deal with challenging situations. If you don’t have access to a well-being program, you can still support employees with standalone, or point solutions, many of which are offered by health plans.

  • Resiliency training. Resilience is our ability to deal with adversity and recover quickly after experiencing a challenging time, and it’s key to helping employees cope in the workplace. Resiliency training can help employees build skills to manage emotions, remain calm, cope with stress, take on new challenges, reframe setbacks, and improve thought processes.
  • Stress management. Stress is an inevitable part of life, and a certain amount of stress can spur us to do our best work. But when it becomes unmanageable, it can lead to burnout. Some tools you can offer employees to reduce stress include:
    • Mindfulness or meditation apps
    • Virtual or onsite yoga or tai chi classes
    • Access to a health coach
  • Support for managers. This is a group that deserves special attention when it comes to emotional health. Managers absorb stress from employees who report to them and respond to demands from those above them. Support managers by creating forums that allow them to talk about stress and seek out social support. Be sure to firmly communicate that getting enough sleep and exercise, eating well, and practicing self-care are not indulgent. Finally, giving managers to the tools to have conversations about emotional health with their employees can also be a huge help in creating a healthy working environment for all.
  • Convenient access to counselors. Employees should know that they don’t need to be having a mental health crisis to benefit from regularly discussing emotions with an impartial resource. Access to therapists via apps, chat, and text are becoming popular ways to tend to our mental health just as we do our physical health.
  • Time off. It goes without saying, but an important aspect of managing emotions includes the ability to turn off work for a while. Encourage employees to take advantage of paid time off and perhaps add a mental health day or two to your benefits package.

We should also note that it’s important for leadership to set the tone from the top that caring for our emotional and mental health is important. A powerful way to achieve this is to appoint a senior leader to be a wellness champion. This person can serve as an ambassador for all things well-being, and be a positive role model, including possibly sharing a testimonial or two to further destigmatize the topic of mental and emotional health.

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Studies continue to be published showing that the mental health crisis isn’t getting any better. In fact, Mercer’s 2022 Inside Employees’ Minds© study found that work-life balance remains a top-three concern, and half of employees say they feel exhausted on a typical day.3 While some of the fixes need to come from how work and the workload is structured, it’s clear that giving employees the tools to cope with stress, setbacks, and challenges are a great way to support the emotional aspects of mental health.

 

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