Work/life balance has been an HR buzzword for years, but the pandemic made it abundantly clear that we always bring our lives to work. So if we’re struggling in “real life,” that struggle will persist for our work selves.
One positive to come from the pain of the past year and a half is that we’re having more frank conversations about mental health and wellbeing and how it impacts our work. We’ve seen athletes like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles pull out of competitions to preserve their mental health. Harvard Business Review started an entire podcast about exploring the intersection between work and mental health.
If you’re a leader, it’s safe to say you have a role to play in promoting emotional wellbeing among your team. But it’s challenging to have conversations around mental health in professional settings. You don’t want to pry, but you also don’t want to ignore those who appear to be struggling.
We’ve read through some research from leading experts about how to help your team discuss mental health and wellbeing and what you can do to create a supportive and safe environment at work.
Set the Tone
Leaders have an outsized role to play in shaping company culture; the way they behave trickles down to others. If you’re a closed off leader, employees get the sense it’s not okay for them to share things about themselves. In contrast, if you’re more open about your struggles, employees feel safer letting their guard down and opening up about their fears or anxieties.
Why does this matter? Because people want to work in empathetic environments. In a survey from Businessolver, more than 90 percent of workers say empathy is important in the workplace. And empathy is impossible if everyone is emotionally walled off.
It’s a fine line for leaders to toe, though. Being open is great, but oversharing is a no-no, particularly when it’s about the health of the organization or something HR-unfriendly. Don’t tell your team you cry yourself to sleep at night, worried about business finances. Similarly, don’t engage in petty name-calling of the spouse you’re divorcing. You get the idea.
But don’t feel compelled to pretend you’re an unfeeling robot, either. It’s okay to acknowledge that you face difficulties in your personal life. You don’t need to share about your most traumatic events. This article from Adam Grant explores the value in talking about the blah many feel right now (there’s even a word for it! Languishing!). It seems innocuous at face value, but honest chats about the blahs can create a more caring workplace.
When you do open up, your team appreciates it. That same study on empathy in the workplace finds that 72 percent of workers believe empathy drives employee motivation, and 84 percent of CEOs believe empathy drives better business outcomes.
Forget the Hard Line
The vast majority of employees do not like an autocratic leadership style. In a survey from LeadershipIQ, employees were shown the statement “My ideal leader tells employees exactly how they would like tasks/projects to be performed.” Sixty-three percent of respondents disagreed with that statement.
If you’re still ruling your team with an iron fist, now might be the time to loosen your grasp. People are struggling for all sorts of reasons. Providing flexibility and letting go of your rigid approach can make a huge positive impact on your team’s mental health, productivity, and wellness.
We’ve written before about the benefits of flexible work. Allowing folks to work when and where it’s most convenient for them has been shown time and again to be more productive than dictating strict in-office, 9-to-5 schedules. And greater productivity and flexibility means less stress, more smiles, and a happier workplace.
Release the Need for Control
This is a tough one for leaders and entrepreneurial types. You’re all about dreaming big and making those dreams come true, so the pandemic was a stark reminder that none of us are actually the masters of the universe.
Sometimes that go-getter attitude, no matter how well-intentioned, can veer into micromanagement territory. Seventy-nine percent of workers surveyed by Trinity Solutions reported they’d worked for a micromanager at some point in their careers.
For many with anxiety and perfectionist tendencies, as the world spins further out of control (like, say, during a pandemic), the grip on the reins grows ever tighter. If this sounds familiar, all I have to say is, it’s time to let it go. [Cue the obligatory Frozen gif.]
A common mantra used in talk therapy for those suffering from anxiety is “What’s in your control, and what’s out of your control?” Only when you accept that certain things are not in your control can you find greater peace, gratitude, and compassion for others.
Leaders must take stock of what’s truly within their control. For example, will you really have greater control over your team and their actions if they’re in the office and you can peer over their cubicle at any given moment? Or, is that an illusion of control that’s not serving them or you?
Be willing to release those things outside of your control, and listen with compassion to employee suggestions and requests. If an employee takes advantage of your remote work policies or anything else, that’s a reflection on them, not the policy. At that point, there is something within your control: How you plan to deal with an employee who’s not holding up their end of the bargain.
Beyond your own caring ear, how can you lend additional support? With digital offerings and subscriptions, it’s easier than ever to provide cost-effective, meaningful wellness perks.
From meditation or yoga apps to chat-based online therapy, there are dozens of companies disrupting the digital wellness space. Many are affordable for organizations of any size. A Headspace subscription, for example, is just under six dollars a month.
If you can provide comprehensive healthcare benefits with mental healthcare access, that’s incredible! But even scrappier organizations can find low-cost ways to invest in their team’s wellbeing. The kind gesture goes a long way.
If an employee does confide in you about their mental health or wellness, treat that information with respect. It’s often difficult for individuals to talk about their struggles. Don’t make it harder by gossiping or chatting with others about what they shared (even if it’s well-intentioned).
If you let someone’s private business slip to others, you immediately undermine the culture of vulnerability and openness you’ve worked so hard to foster.
Not only that, your team loses respect for you. And a recent survey from TINYpulse found that people are 26 percent more likely to leave a role when they feel a low level of respect between employees.
NB: The exception to this rule is when you fear someone’s life or safety is at risk. In those instances, please do speak up.
Take Care of Yourself
Sometimes folks at the top spend so much time thinking about others they forget to care for themselves. Your mental health has effects on yourself, your family, your team, and everyone around you.
A recent Gallup poll shows that the number one reason people leave their jobs is because of a bad manager. Even if you’re a kind-hearted person, if you’re spreading yourself too thin and feeling overly stressed, you’re more likely to take that out on your team.
If you’re not willing to invest in your wellbeing for yourself (and you should! You’re worth it!), then do it for your team.
Establish a self-care routine. Carve out time for running, journaling, yoga, meditation—whatever brings you calm and peace. Don’t be afraid to seek out professional help. Therapy, psychiatry, support groups, and 12-step programs help many people out there in the world. There’s no shame in joining their ranks and getting the support you need.
The pandemic has shown us that caring for your team is so much bigger than providing career counseling or a fun office ping pong table. We spend a lot of time at work, and it needs to be a safe space where our well-being is prioritized. By bringing empathy, compassion, and listening skills to work every day, you create an environment where teams feel safe asking for what they need. And that, in turn, builds a stronger and happier workforce.
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Jess Tyson, CEO & Director of Calm
Jess is the founder and proud Director of Calm at Don’t Panic Management. (And yes, she invented that title because that’s what you do when you’re the boss!) She wrote the book on how building a successful relationship with a virtual assistant can make all the difference in helping business owners get to the next level. Her life is often a whirlwind of wrangling her toddler, speaking at conferences (virtual and beyond!), researching productivity hacks, and meticulously making matches between overworked entrepreneurs and focused virtual assistants. Jess's first book, Panic Proof: How the Right Virtual Assistant Can Save Your Sanity and Grow Your Business is available now: panicproofbook.com
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