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What’s the Difference Between Mental and Emotional Health? Why It Matters for Your Workforce

Physical health has long been a primary focus of many workplace wellness programs, in part because of how easy it is to translate into measurable wellbeing initiatives. 

While these efforts are effective in improving or maintaining diet, exercise, and sleep, true wellbeing involves a complex web of factors that evolve over time—none the least of which are mental and emotional health.

Today’s employees understand this on a deep level, which is why over 80% agree their employers have a responsibility to help them manage their mental wellbeing, according to a report from Goldman Sachs. While the same report found that 95% of corporate partners do offer mental healthcare, this doesn’t always include assistance for unique emotional conditions.

But what exactly is the difference between mental and emotional health, and how can employers effectively address both in the workplace?

Key Differences Between Mental and Emotional Health

Mental and emotional wellbeing are clearly two interrelated concepts, but in order to thoughtfully understand each in the context of workplace wellbeing, it’s vital to know the subtle differences.

Breaking it down, mental health refers to the overall psychological wellbeing of an individual, including their social and emotional wellness. This can influence the way an employee thinks, feels, and behaves, especially when they experience a mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD. 

Separately, emotional health involves being aware of one’s feelings and having the ability to manage and express them appropriately, especially during times of emotional distress. For example, an employee’s mental health might trigger a negative thought, but their emotional intelligence might be able to help them regulate their feelings about it.

It’s also important to note that mental health captures more than just negative emotions. A mental health issue is often a chronic disorder that the individual must learn to live with by developing healthy coping mechanisms, emotional regulation, and continued treatment.

Distinguishing Between Mental and Emotional Wellbeing

💡 Processing vs. Expressing Emotion
Mental health illnesses change the way someone’s mind processes information. For instance, someone with anxiety may experience elevated stress in situations that seem normal to those with good mental health. At the same time, a person with anxiety could have better emotional health, meaning they’re able to regulate emotional distress and express negative feelings in a healthy way. 

💡 Logic vs. Intuition
Another way to look at mental and emotional health is to observe the decisions a person makes. Whereas good mental health is often associated with logical decision-making, a mental health illness can cause someone to make seemingly irrational decisions. By the same coin, emotional decision-making involves understanding how one is feeling and basing decisions on intuition rather than logic alone. 

💡 Acting vs. Reacting
Similarly, mental health illnesses can cause someone to act in ways that are risky or even harmful. Emotional distress might also lead to behavior that is out-of-character, but these actions are motivated more by feeling than mental illness. Put simply, someone who is feeling stressed may become anxious, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate an anxiety disorder.


How to Tell When Employees Are Struggling

Understanding the differences between mental and emotional distress in the workplace is crucial, but it’s only the first step toward improving employee wellbeing. Employers must also be cognizant of warning signs so they can mindfully identify when an employee may need help. 

In other words, they need to be able to recognize different mental and emotional triggers at play. But what exactly do triggers look like in the workplace?

By definition, a trigger refers to a specific experience, event, person, place, or thing that causes a negative reaction, often due to past trauma. In the context of mental health, this can spark a range of issues, such as anxiety, depression, or burnout. On the emotional side of things, triggers can cause someone to feel any number of emotions, such as fear, sadness, or even anger.

While triggers are personal to individual employees, access to mental health treatment can help them better manage and cope with their mental impacts and emotions so that they can be present at work, accomplish tasks, and thrive in their roles.

Of course, employers aren’t always going to know what triggers specific employees. In order to provide a psychologically safe workplace that effectively supports the unique needs of employees, employers can benefit by identifying the signs and symptoms of mental illness and emotional distress in employees.

For instance, employees who are experiencing mental or emotional triggers might exhibit:

  • Low interest in work and/or engagement in workplace activities
  • Difficulties focusing or staying on task throughout the day
  • Tiredness or drowsiness as a result of poor sleeping habits
  • Lethargy or fatigue due to unhealthy dietary habits

These symptoms might not necessarily be indicative of problems within the workplace, but there are a number of risk factors that can exacerbate mental and emotional issues, including:

  • Underutilizing employee skill sets
  • Excessive workloads
  • Unclear expectations
  • Long, inflexible working hours
  • Poor working conditions (physically or culturally)
  • Discrimination and/or harassment
  • Lack of control over one’s work

Given that investing in mental and emotional wellbeing saves $3.27 in annual healthcare costs and $2.73 in absenteeism costs—on top of boosting productivity by 5%—it’s clear that supporting employee mental and emotional health benefits the entire organization. So what can employers do to promote good emotional health and mental wellness in the workplace?


Strengthening Mental and Emotional Health in the Workplace

Here are a few practical steps you can take to support employees’ unique mental and emotional needs, recognize triggers, and help your organization thrive in the face of distress:

1. Regularly Check in with Employees on a Personal Level

Scheduling one-on-one meetings with employees is crucial, but they don’t always have to be work-related. 

Not only do informal chats create an open space for discussing matters impacting mental or emotional wellbeing, but it also allows employees to share personal wins and experiences. These conversations can provide great insight into how employees are doing, how they’re coping with stress, and any potential challenges they’re facing so they feel valued and supported at work.

2. Implementing Fun and Engaging Mental and Emotional Wellness Activities

One of the most effective ways to inspire employees to focus on their mental and emotional wellbeing is by designing activities that make seemingly complex issues fun, fresh, and measurable. 

While creating and promoting these activities may seem daunting, it can actually include a range of programs, including simple stress-reduction techniques like deep breathing or meditation. The goal is to create fun, interactive activities that encourage employee participation and help foster a supportive work environment that prioritizes holistic wellbeing.

3. Encouraging Healthy Habits for the Mind and Body

Speaking of holistic wellbeing, it’s also important to promote initiatives across the entire organization that also promote physical health. While no one aspect of wellbeing should take priority over another, including these types of programs can help employees build healthier habits. 

For example, offering nutritious food options in the workplace can provide nutrients that nourish the brain, while encouraging exercise can allow employees to enjoy the positive mental and emotional benefits of released endorphins.

4. Incentivizing Engagement with a Wellness Platform

Of course, not every employee will immediately be on board with wellbeing activities. That’s why implementing a wellness platform that incentivizes participation through rewards can significantly boost employee engagement while helping organizations reach their larger wellness goals. 

In addition to boosting engagement, these platforms can offer a wealth of resources, from stress management tools to counseling services, making it easier for employees to access the emotional and mental healthcare they need.


Empower Mental and Emotional Wellbeing with a Holistic Wellness Platform

Looking to empower employees to thrive in a happier, healthier workplace? 

Discover how WellRight’s holistic wellness platform can improve your employees’ mental and emotional health while also skyrocketing your bottom line. Reach out to one of our experts to learn more.


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