In a year of many firsts, leaders are finding themselves in uncharted waters with their employees. As the mental health implications of the pandemic set in, leaders are left wondering what they can do to support employees and create a mentally-healthy culture during such a difficult time.
The pandemic has impacted many of us in deeply personal ways, and it can be uncomfortable to talk about these issues at work. Whether it’s concerns over their own health or their family’s, the challenges of raising school-aged children in a pandemic, or simply finding a quiet room for working from home, we have a new window into our employees’ personal lives — and new opportunities to care for them in the totality of their lives.
There has never been a more important time for vulnerability in leadership. Here are three purpose-driven perspectives on how to support employees’ mental health.
Eliminate Personal Disruptors
Mental health is often viewed as a taboo topic in the workplace. But purpose-driven leaders know that we’re not serving the full potential of our teams or our organizations when we neglect issues of mental health.
Tasty Catering CEO Kornel Grygo makes mental health a top priority for Tasty’s nearly 200 full-time, part-time, and seasonal employees. All Tasty employees can meet with an on-call industrial psychologist any time they’d like — treatment is confidential, unlimited, and the company foots the bill.
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Caring for employees’ mental well-being has always been embedded into Tasty Catering’s company culture. In fact, Tasty Catering is a two-time recipient of the Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Honors, and its mental health services were in place long before the events of this year.
As leaders, we’re not expected to become mental health professionals in this moment — a leader’s job is to simply listen. If you’re building relationships with everyone on your team and talking to them often, mental health issues will naturally be uncovered.
“Leaders should always be stopping to simply ask people, ‘How are you doing?’” says Grygo. “We check in with everyone every single day. It’s about taking those personal disruptors out — if your family is struggling or someone is scared for their health, you’re not going to be productive at work.”
But not everyone will be comfortable confiding in you face-to-face or over a video call. Grygo recommends creating multiple platforms for communication so that you can reach all employees. While some may be comfortable picking up the phone and sharing what’s going on, others may respond better to surveys or personal emails.
“We want to give people platforms to share so that we can help them solve any problems,” says Grygo.
Model Mentally-Healthy Behaviors
Matters of mental health are uncomfortable to discuss, especially at work. When leaders start the conversation, it gives people permission to share. Vulnerability in leadership is important, and telling your team what you’re going through and how you’re coping helps to open the dialogue.
Atomic Object, a software design and development consultancy, has team members who are facing a myriad of challenges: some are balancing working from home with homeschooling children, others are coping with isolation after months of living alone through this pandemic.
Brittany Hunter, managing partner at Atomic Object, encourages leaders to be thoughtful about whether video is necessary for certain meetings. “We’ve started doing some of our executive one-on-one calls on the phone instead, which allows us to go for a restorative walk or load the dishwasher and fold laundry while we sync up,” says Hunter.
It’s about modeling the behaviors she wants to see in her team members. “Life isn’t perfect, we’re all struggling,” says Hunter. “I’m making proactive changes in my behavior and modeling it for them. One impactful way I do that is by going out on a walk for all of my one-on-one calls. I tell them what I’m doing, why, and invite them to do the same.”
As much uncertainty as leaders are facing right now, our people are dealing with fears of their own, at work and at home. A culture of transparency can actually empower people by providing clear communication about where the business stands and how they can impact the numbers.
Keith Stout, president of Ace Metal Crafts, points to their company town halls as a forum for open communication.
“We have town halls that are honest and transparent, yet hopeful,” says Stout. “We ask for personal updates and people share their personal concerns and wins. Then from a company perspective, we share: Brutal Reality, Credible Hope. This means sharing what we’re up against, what we’re after and why, and the credible hope you leave with.”
Be honest about how the business is doing, but turn it back to the team and ask for solutions. “We engage the team in the process of problem solving,” says Stout. “How can you help? What ideas do you have? This avoids dishonest cheerleading but also curbs much of the uncertainty.”