Mental Health in the Workplace is More Important Than Ever

October 13, 2020

7 Ways Leaders Can Create the Right Environment at Their Business

In August 2020, I attended a webinar led by Oksana Esberard, a mental wellness expert, mindfulness and meditation coach, international speaker, and best-selling author of the book Next Level You. She is the founder of SattvaMe – a global training organization focused on strength, stress management, mindfulness, and wellness for employees and business leaders – and has worked with companies such as Microsoft, Buzzfeed, and Sandler Training.

I have been fascinated by her work for years. Her presentation strengthened my belief that leaders must become more engaged with creating a mental health environment that supports their employees. It also challenged me to become more direct with how I address these topics with my clients.    

With this post, I reflect upon Esberard’s thoughts and discuss the 7 factors of a workplace where everyone’s mental health is respected and given importance.

1. Acknowledge the Reality of Burnout

Industry research from leading organizational psychologists have warned about burnout for years. This revelation should be not surprising to anyone, and if it is, you aren’t paying attention to your people. And guess what – COVID-19 has only increased that stress, not because more people are working from home, but because they’re doing everything at home like never before.

Your organization can’t just wish it away or toss around platitudes at your next team meetings. Just because productivity is going up, it doesn’t mean people feel good about the work they’re doing. Instead, it might be an indicator that people are doing more work because there are fewer people to do the work and because they’re stressed about losing their jobs in an increasingly weird economy. This is the perfect storm for burnout, and a good leader recognizes it.

2. Learn How to Talk to and Listen to Your People

While you aren’t a mental health professional who can diagnose health risks, you are a leader who should pay attention to what’s happening with your people. Recognizing the signs of struggling mental health starts with you checking in with your people.

I’ve emphasized the necessity of communicating with your people for years. Not only should you speak to people at every level of your organization, but you should do so on a regular basis. As an executive, you must have your finger on the pulse of what’s happening and how people are feeling. Your team leaders and managers should have these chats with their direct reports, but it’s also good to do so as the head of the company.

This is not a matter of finding a random employee and chatting them up with questions like, “Hey, how are you doing? How are your tasks and deadlines?” I’m talking about clear communication where people feel free expressing how they actually feel, not just what they’re doing. Or as Esberard states:

“Courageous leaders want to hear that emotional feedback and so they can be emotionally available for their team. As leaders, we need to first open that communication, open that conversation, and show that we care. Then, once we have that information, we must do something with it that helps people on an individual and professional level.”

Employees must feel like you care, and that starts by communicating with them without judgment. This can occur in a variety of ways:

·       Face-to-face meetings with individuals

·       Holding leadership meetings on a regular basis with clear objectives

·       Encouraging your leadership team to do the same with their direct reports

·       Anonymous regular (not just annual) surveys where people can talk without fear of reprisal

It’s important this communication includes simple questions about moods, stress levels, and problem situations. You can’t fix what might be broken if you ignore the reality of the situation.

3. Encourage Hard Conversations

Health care is a large portion of the bottom line for many companies. You would think leaders would encourage their people stay in better health just from a purely economic standpoint.

However, talking about mental health isn’t easy. The American workforce is trained to push down those feelings and do the work – no matter how they actually feel. The problem with this head-in-the-sand approach is that it lowers productivity in the aggregate. This doesn’t even touch on the emotional and psychological stress of burnout.

Yet, leaders don’t know how to have these hard conversations about how people are really thinking and feeling. Esberard declared this to be a losing position for everyone:

“There is 30-40% burnout potential for employees quitting simply because their mental pressure went so high that they no longer wanted to contribute to the organization. And these are often the best players. There are also costs to employee engagement as people are just checking out. Recent reports and studies show employees losing 1-2 hours of productivity time each week because they’re battling emotions. They cannot be productive because they can’t concentrate.”

That is astonishing information that any good leader must face. There is no tool or enterprise suite of solutions you can buy that will improve the productivity lost because people are sad and feeling too stressed out to work. These are human problems that need a human solution – one that comes from talking to your people about how they feel about their lives and work.

Will these be difficult conversations to have? Absolutely. They don’t have easy answers, but the path toward a long-lasting solution starts with listening to people. This is what I mean by creating a workplace that honors the importance of mental health. The fact that it will help you save on health care and productivity costs should be an ancillary benefit.

4. Embrace the Principles of Mindfulness

I talk a lot about spiritual journeys, listening to your inner monologue, and paying attention to what your life and world are really telling you. This all falls under the concept of “mindfulness,” and while it’s a hot-button word in both leadership and self-care circles, what I really mean is awareness. I want you to ask yourself the following:

“Are you aware of what’s really going on in your business in a holistic and objective way?”

This is difficult for leaders of large businesses because of the sheer amount of people, processes, and procedures at play. But I’ve also found that mindfulness escapes people running smaller businesses as they assume they know what’s going on because the reduced employee headcount.

Here’s the hidden truth about putting mindfulness into action: It takes time, effort, and consistency. It isn’t easy, but it’s worth it – especially since it looks different for each person. But you must be willing to pursue mindfulness if you’re going to achieve mental health. I’ll let Esberard explain:

“If you want to improve your stress levels, you need to admit to yourself how much stress level there is. The challenge is that we’re so busy all the time doing something. We’re so busy achieving, setting goals, or getting to the next goal for your organization that you don’t really look at the potential stress involved in all that activity. Awareness of the whole has become a lost art.”

When it comes to putting mindfulness into place at your business, both for yourself and your people, I recommend starting with a three-stage evaluation. This is your chance to understand the real struggles many people are facing daily.

·       Mental – What is the narrative people tell themselves?

·       Emotional – How do they feel about that narrative, and how are those feeling directing their lives?

·       Social – How are they letting that narrative impact their work and personal lives?

Just like the data and information about your business operations, if you don’t know what’s happening with your people, there’s nothing you can do to help them. Hence, the best thing you can do to encourage people to respect their own mental health is to show them that it matters to you.

Your people will respond to real and authentic interactions with the leadership at their company. Not only has this proven to be true in the aftermath of COVID, but it’s been true for many years – we’re just seeing the effect of it now as our systems get stressed.

5. Your Integration Must Be Intentional

For many of my clients, I encourage them to think of mental health as a product you’re introducing in your office. It’s designed to help everyone become better people in everyday life and more productive at work, which is a win-win for employers. But like most services, it will only work if top leadership is fully bought into the practice and implement it everywhere.

Esberard explains it this way:

“Mindfulness is not a new thing. It has been in the workplace for at least 10 years. Businesses traditionally offer seminars like “Lunch & Learns,” yoga classes, and employee assistance programs. But they are all individual sporadic things that people sometimes don’t even know the company provides. People don’t use them or don’t find them necessary because nobody spends time to explain why they are necessary or how they can benefit from them.”

You will never create a workplace where mental health is valued if your people have to do all the work themselves. Just because you give them a program doesn’t mean they will actually enroll in it. This is especially true if they don’t feel there’s time in the day to stop working. If they don’t feel encouraged to participate at an organizational level, they will know that leadership doesn’t take these efforts seriously.

Your people know what you and your leadership deem most important, and they’ll likely to put all their energy there. Even your most idealistic go-getters are likely not to take part in a one-off class. They know the bosses value doing more work for the company over any other activity. Thus, if you’re going to help your people improve their mental health – and you should – then you must implement a holistic program with multiple options and strong leadership support.

Mental health isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation, so your employees need a variety of formats and assistance. Wellness programs aren’t the sort of “We will do it at this time and this time only” solution, as the solutions are based upon individual need and situation.

Ultimately, you don’t offer these opportunities to increase mere employee engagement. It’s about promoting healthier bodies and minds, so your employees become their best selves and do their best work. You must install them company-wide and instill them with your personal support and participation.

6. Consistent Support is Essential

Your people must believe that you believe in mental health. On a personal level, it’s a lifetime practice, not a one-off solution that fixes things for good. On the corporate level, it’s just as granular and comprehensive in nature. As a leader, you must pay attention to yourself, your leadership teams, their teams, and down to how one person might be feeling. This is why a company-wide program is important, as it gives everyone a strong support system they can rely upon when they need it.

Again, we turn to Esberard for insight:

“When it comes to mental health, the biggest thing I hear about from leaders and managers is the fear of dropping down to the human level. They are afraid of having a conversation with people who are stressed and actually hearing them. And it’s a big, big fear because they see it as taking away from productivity, caring for clients, and customer service.

I immediately push back and ask them to think about the people, not the work. If your employee’s stressed, what kind of customer service do they give? How productive are they? What kind of results are the producing if their head is occupied because their kid is not logging in right to a school zoom meeting? Do you think they are really present with your customers? Responsible leaders must engage in some give and take.”

She’s absolutely right – and this was true before COVID-19. Your people need your help. They want your support. Their mental health is improved knowing that the work they do matters more than just increasing the bottom line on some spreadsheet.

Does every leader have time to visit every employee? Of course not! That’s the reason you install a system that encompasses your entire business. You teach leaders at every level how to talk to their employees, and employees are then encouraged to reach out long before things fall apart. When you bake in mutual support and comprehensive aid to every level of your organization, you’re sharing the burden and responsibility with everyone.

Moreover, by showing people that mental health is important to the company, you’re removing the stigma of talking about emotions at work. This helps peers connect and support each other more effectively, and it increases positive communication between direct reports and their managers.

7. Be Present

It all comes down to a principle I’ve taught my clients for years: you must be present for your people. I’m not talking about micromanaging – even though that concept has gotten a bad rap over time – I’m talking about being visibly open to your people.

No one wants the boss hanging over their shoulder, but they do like having a boss they can talk to about their problems. Sure, you might not be a counselor or therapist, but you obviously have experience managing work and life stress or you wouldn’t have become a successful professional and leader. What matters is that your people feel they can go to you and your leadership team for real conversation.

Let’s hear from Esberard one last time:

“Whenever you can create real opportunities to engage with people, it’s going to produce way more impact if you opt out for an electronic solution when people need to sit and go through tabs and listen to someone online. We live in an important, amazing era where technology enables us to connect in person. We must take advantage of these live opportunities even if they’re remote. You must have that desire to make a change permanent and impact people on personal levels. It’s the personal choice for the organization and the leaders.”

Can this be difficult if your company has gone remote in response to COVID-19? Sure, but like all of these tips, you must be intentional and purposeful with the solutions you put into practice. And you must also let your people know that there are no easy and quick solutions – especially when it comes to mental health.

Only Leaders Can Create a Mentally Healthy Workplace

I hope I’ve been able to convince you of the need for and efficacy of creating and installing a mental health program in your business. Your people need the support now more than ever, and the better your people feel, the more effective they are at their jobs.

However, while your individual employees can develop personal strategies to improve their own mental health, they can’t be held responsible for encouraging it in the workplace. If it’s not a top-down initiative designed to help everyone, then it will look, feel, and operate like a piecemeal effort done for appearances only.

Positive mental health is a leading indicator of forward motion in a person’s life. Standing still kills great people. You can’t be the same person you were six months ago and be able to deal with the challenges of today – and you certainly can’t expect that of the people who work for you. If you want your business to evolve so it’s prepared to meet this new reality, the people working at your business must be ready – inside and out.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to embrace the principles of personal and corporate mental health to the benefit of your employees and business, schedule a free consultation with me today.