Mental Health Is A Business Issue
Managers who use such rationalizations to deem their teams’ mental health issues as irrelevant to their job do so at their own peril. Job-related stress that was in 2019 as “negatively affecting employee job performance and productivity” is now, in 2022, endemic—and it’s not a spillover from workers’ personal lives.
Burnout and other stress-related symptoms affect 91 percent of respondents to a , asserting that an “unmanageable amount of stress or frustration negatively impacts the quality of their work.”
Psychologist Hammad S. N’cho, who specializes in front-line trauma response, told Wharton management professor Stephanie Creary during an that the solution is a “trauma-informed management strategy” that “encourages leading with flexibility, facilitating open, honest, two-way communication between staff and leadership, and most importantly, promoting post-traumatic growth.”
It's a tall but essential order, with the essential ingredients being the beliefs, communication, and practices of management. Let’s break that down.
Just because you feel you’ve come through the pandemic and related work crises unscathed doesn’t mean everyone else has. Dozens of studies affirm record levels of workplace stress and related mental health concerns. Leaders across the board report not just diminished job performance but also record-high levels of absenteeism and turnover. No amount of wishful thinking, placing blame, or feigning ignorance will change the fact that the mental health crisis, and its effect on business, is real.
If you need a reality check, note how many of the following signs are present on your team:
Managers can best assess their workforce through individual contact but may also benefit from HR and data scientist assistance. No matter how the evaluation is completed, the sooner managers and senior leaders acknowledge and understand the extent of the problem, the sooner they can address it.
Communication, whether written, spoken, or delivered through body language (which has been as 55 percent of communication), is the only sure-fire way to let them know you care and understand. It can also have a significant impact on performance: writing in the Josh Bersin describes recent discussions with global HR leaders that reveal the “organizations outperforming their peers are those that have cultivated a strong sense of empathy.”
Empathy in a business setting is described in a as “care, concern, and understanding for employees’ life circumstances.” The 2021 research findings are prefaced by the question, “Is empathy a ‘feel-good’ element—something that is ‘nice to have’—or is it a strategic imperative?” The study results answer the question, showing that empathy not only decreases work-related stress, burnout, and intent to leave, but also increases innovation and engagement.
Don’t hope your direct reports can intuit your beliefs; instead, be deliberate and intentional in communicating them. Tell others, repeatedly, that you respect where they are and where they’re coming from. Let them know that you consider their perspectives in your decisions. Make it clear that you acknowledge the stress they are under.
· Ask questions to deepen your understanding while making eye contact, smiling when appropriate, and not engaging in distracting behaviors such as taking notes
· Repeat what was said, responses such as “If I understand you correctly, this is what you are telling me,” and, “Let me know if I have this right,” demonstrate that you have listened
· Subtly mirror the other person’s body language; reveals that it fires up the brain’s mirror neuron system and strongly signals empathy
· Level the visual playing field: don’t sit at the head of the table or behind your desk when having important conversations
In addition to cultivating and communicating greater empathy, leaders’ actions should further demonstrate their understanding of employees’ circumstances and the stresses they are trying to manage. While team activities, walking meetings, and cocktail parties are fun, the following three practices, while requiring more effort, can make a lasting impact.
1. While the debate about remote and hybrid work continues, research—and the number of people who have full-time—confirms that flexibility is key. A found that 80 percent of employees said flexible work options would help them better meet their personal need and increase happiness. Consider offering hybrid, remote, and flexible work opportunities.
3. Become well-versed in your organization’s policies and resources that can support the mental health of your team members, and then advocate for them. Wellness programs, professional services, and paid time off can provide support and reduce stress and its effects.
The mental health crisis at work is real. But managers don’t need to simply accept it and wait for it to recede. Proactively taking steps to understand and reduce sources of workplace stress will not only help improve your team members’ well-being, but will also lead to them being more proficient, engaged, and productive employees.