The past several years has been a perfect storm of issues resulting in significant stress-and-strain on so many individuals. Concerns about how to keep ourselves, and our loved ones, safe-and-healthy has taken on new meaning. Political divisiveness and racial injustice have been amplified. As challenges mount, leaders, and their teams, still need to show up every day and do their jobs. Under normal stresses of everyday life, it can be hard to stay mentally healthy but against the backdrop of these incredibly profound issues, it’s even harder.
Organizations are evaluating their approach to mental wellness and adjusting their policies, services, and support for their people. Likewise, while leaders don’t need to be mental health experts, they can play a part in normalizing the role mental well-being plays in supporting a healthy and productive workplace. When an individual has strong mental health, they can deal with the normal stresses of everyday life and be productive at home and at work. But the frequency and intensity of “normal stresses” combined with the blurring of lines between home-and-work has created anxiety and fatigue of epic proportions.
With a greater sensitivity to the safety of their employees, leaders have ratcheted up their empathy. But is increased empathy enough? According to research done by meQuilibrium, employees reported a 21% increase in burnout and a 17% increase in physical symptoms between December 2020 and July 20211.
It’s time to extend the empathy leaders have been expressing and tune in to the broader issue of mental health. Leaders don’t need to become therapists and they should not diagnose or treat mental illness. But they can help destigmatize conversations around mental wellness and wellbeing. They can be Aware, Listen, Learn, Inquire, and take a Nonjudgmental stance on mental health. In short, they can be “ALL IN” on mental wellness.
Awareness: It starts with self-awareness. A leader can’t be a credible source to support others if it is clear they are neglecting their own mental health. How are you feeling? Are you taking care of yourself by getting enough rest, healthy food, and exercising? Do you have a source of support to talk through the challenges you face as a leader and are you able to draw your own lines between work and home? Awareness is also about recognizing the signs and signals you are receiving from others. When your employees say they are exhausted or stressed, do you let it go? Or do you consider the message behind those words? What do you notice about missed deadlines, lateness to meetings, or a general lack-of-focus? Mental health is a part of everyone’s life the same way physical health is – and awareness about that fact is the starting point.
Listen: Amplifying your ability to listen, and listen actively, is the second step. Don’t solve, just listen. Put yourself in the shoes of your employee and feel what it’s like for them to juggle online school while participating in team meetings. Sit with their worry for an elderly parent who may be sick. Don’t multitask – give them your undivided attention when these issues come up. Listen for, and reflect, the emotion you are hearing and ask to follow up questions – this is not about fixing. Often, simply having someone listen to your concerns is enough to release some of the anxiety and tension.
Learn: There are many resources to support greater awareness of the signs of strong mental health and the indicators that someone you care about may be drifting into less-than-healthy behaviors. Become an educated leader by accessing company available resources or going to World Health Organization website or accessing links such as https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/learn/index.htm to learn more about the power of strong mental health. As a leader it may be obvious to you when performance is off, but are you equally as educated about knowing if the person, the human being in front of you, needs greater support.
Inquire: With knowledge and awareness, move to supportive inquiry. Ask questions to learn more about your employee and to better understand what they are thinking. Keep the lines of communication open in both directions. Uncover, together, what type of assistance you might be able to provide. Can you adjust or change work schedules? Does a modification to which hours an employee works seem possible? If digital fatigue is an issue, are video free days an option? As you inquire, be alert for the signs that indicate your employee may not want to talk and avoid prying. Likewise, be alert for the signs that your employee may need more than your support and provide access to resources where appropriate. You cannot make the pandemic go away or help your employee process their emotions or anxieties, but you may be able to identify some work-related adjustments that can make a difference.
Non-Judgmental: Although society has come a long way in destigmatizing issues of mental health, there is still a sensitivity about the topic. Be aware of your own biases around mental health – and seek to create an environment of psychological safety that includes the ability for employees to express how they are feeling. Choose your words carefully and extend the discussion to your entire team. Don’t single out certain individuals as having mental health problems, but create an environment where folks feel comfortable expressing their vulnerabilities.
Individuals who will be successful at leading productive and healthy teams will be those who incorporate mental well-being into their leadership approach. The past several years, and all its challenges, has heightened our collective conscience around the fact that the people over profits must be our starting point. Discussions around mental wellness are core to that philosophy. Strong leaders will understand that and be “All In” on the mental wellness and well-being.