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RUNNING FROM TIGERS: MENTAL HEALTH IN THE WORKPLACE

I started WorkBest Consulting in 2008 during the financial meltdown. I saw an opportunity to offer best practices for all kinds of organizational health: conflict, communication and productivity among other things. As we head into fall, I am finding our clients would like to focus on mental health as well as organizational health strategies during the transition of Covid, our most contentious election in recent history, and an important examination of why race matters--everywhere, including the workplace.

Any talk about mental health has to start with neurobiology. Here’s a short story about our brain, anxiety and reaction. Remember the punch line to this story: It’s not our fault.


As it turns out, despite how much we have evolved, we are still programmed to run from tigers.


You all know about this, right? You’re familiar with fight, flight or freeze. It describes the sympathetic nervous system: How the very early humans reacted to danger. It still applies today, even though we no longer face tigers. Instead we face job losses, family issues, child and elder care challenges, money worries. We face pandemics. These are the current triggers of our sympathetic nervous systems.


Those very systems that helped us outrun the tigers have the potential to create a new crisis. We cannot literally run. So, we become overwhelmed, anxious, worried, reactive, or shut down. Physically, our muscles tighten, our stomachs lurch, we sweat and generally, we feel terrible.


Here’s the clincher: When our sympathetic nervous system is triggered,

we lose connection with our prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive functioning!


We lose perspective, our sense of humor and generally, our feelings of relatedness. That’s where our personality lives. Suddenly, we are reactive and not responsive to everyday issues at work and at home.


Remember, we are wired this way; the reaction is NOT our FAULT!


In this time of the Covid 19 pandemic, the stress response that I just described leads to emotional and physical fatigue. It shows up as apathy, indifference, anxiety, anger and sadness. It shows up as trauma.


Trauma sneaks up on you; Big T Trauma is what you would expect: combat issues, physical abuse or acute illnesses, great loss or death and destruction. Small T trauma are the many slings and arrows we can experience in a lifetime that defeat us. It’s not yet clear which of us will be experiencing trauma, either big or small; but it is clear that it is present.


Misconception: resilience is about how you endure. It’s not — it’s about recharging. In this time and place, there’s been an onslaught: the news, financial worries and most importantly, our health. And not just health issues related to this virus. Consider how many of your employees were dealing with health issues – their own or a loved one’s – before March of 2020. Imagine the additional stress they are experiencing today.


In your workplace, the stress response manifests itself in many ways:

It’s the manager who can’t seem to show up on time or the employee who can’t hand in the assignment. It’s your own fear about next year's budget that reveals itself today as a short and angry retort to a colleague or a family member. It can also be judgment and shaming about pandemic protocol--how some employees are conforming or not conforming to community guidelines.

The description I hear most from my clients is exhaustion and numbness.


This crisis has zapped us of our energy. Recharging is vital. 


From a cost perspective, you’re facing employee retention issues, work engagement issues and employee fear of taking PTO. There will be an increase in healthcare costs, a decrease in productivity and overall higher workforce turnover and expenses. It can feel like death by a thousand cuts. 


Here are some sobering statistics that are PRE-PANDEMIC!

The World Health Organization estimates that depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1 trillion per year in lost productivity. 

The WHO has also found that investing in mental wellness is worth it, as for every $1 put into scaled up treatment for common mental disorders, there is an ROI of $4 in improved health and productivity. 

A report published by Capita found that:

  • 79% of workers have experienced stress at work during the last 12 months

  • 22% feel stress more often than not or all the time

  • 47% feel that it is normal to feel stress and anxiety at work

  • 45% have considered leaving a job due to the stress it has created

  • 53% have known colleagues forced to give up work due to stress

  • 49% do not think their line manager would know what to do if they talked to them about a mental health issue.

The same Capita report also found that the most common response to stress is increased irritability in the workplace. This means that stress not only affects one person, but rather an entire team and fellow coworkers. 

  • 44% were more irritated at work

  • 25% drank more alcohol

  • 28% took it out on their family

  • 15% smoked more cigarettes


Okay, that’s it for the bad news. I promise. Now for the good.


There are tried and true solutions to these circumstances. They involve strategy, insight, innovation, and the ability to pivot.


Remember how the way we react is not our fault? 

Well, the way we respond is ours to solve.


I’m trained as a therapist; I can talk to you all day long about personal strategies to combat the stress response. However, I want to talk today about professional strategies. I’m combining what I know as a psychotherapist AND a business strategist, to give you action items to put into place now.


Don’t let your own experience color your view of your employees’ experience.

First and foremost, there must be buy-in from senior leadership that this is a threat to your organizational health. What does that look like?

Messaging from the top down should be empathetic, transparent, affirming. You must normalize the variety of reactions and the responses. Share a personal experience, tell a story. Own it. Everyone has the same mechanism of reaction.This lets your employees know that what they are feeling is normal.

Employees' perception of leadership during the pandemic and after will have a profound impact on how smoothly the new-normal is successful. The research is clear that employees look to leadership during times of change and crises. Consider how you communicate effectively; Videos (in casual attire rather than a suit behind a desk), town halls with ongoing questions, Friday afternoon emails with bulleted updates, hotline availability, and increased HR access are all good tools to model culture and leadership style.


The way you conduct yourself informs those who work for you on how to conduct themselves. It’s important that you consider what those people are facing.


For instance, typically our leaders are a generation older than the general workforce. You, as a leader, may be in a traditional marriage where your responsibilities at home are minimal. That is not typically the experience of millennials, who may share inside and outside duties differently.


So refrain from figuring that your employees are going through the same things you are. Instead: Examine your biases, blind spots and assumptions. The more you do this, the better connection you have with your team. I can’t stress this enough. 

Ask yourself: What kinds of challenges are my employees facing? How are their lives different from mine? Better yet, ask your senior leaders. Ask your leadership to have informal chats with their teams; find out where the pain points are during this time. Try not to be dismissive about the reality of how folks are experiencing this: Hold back from making a decision until you hear all sides. IF there was any time in your tenure to be democratic in your thoughts and actions; this is it. Hierarchical thinking will lead to missing out on what’s happening with your workforce.


Don’t rely solely on your healthcare insurance or your employee assistance program to ensure the mental health of your workforce. Unless these programs are internal and fully staffed and resourced, they offer limited value. Most EAP’s are 800 numbers designed to be a referral resource. Most behavioral health costs have high deductibles and limited sessions.

Instead, provide training for managers within your organization to talk with colleagues about the signs of disengagement, loneliness, lost productivity, situational sadness and anxiety. I am not talking about doing therapy here, I am suggesting therapeutic techniques that are easy to learn and implement.


For example, “How are you?” leads to the answer: “Fine.” But “How are you holding up? How is your family? How’s things at your house?” can make a difference and lead to a conversation about an employee’s struggles. Leave the heavy lifting to the professionals but have a pipeline of information to get an employee there if they need it.


And, while you’re at it, Don’t assume one size fits all for accommodation. WFH, flexible work times, individual contributors vs. team leaders, introverts and extroverts, influencers and connectors all have a different need that is part of accommodating this new world order.


Instead: Survey your employees to see what’s working and what isn’t. Simple questions will yield great results; try an anonymous survey that looks like this:

How would you rate the company’s response to the crisis so far?

What are your top three workplace concerns?

How can the organization best meet your needs during this time?

What are the strengths and weaknesses of WFH?

What would you like to see done differently?


We are asking alot of our workforce...so, don’t rely on managers to take the initiative on their own. They are in the same boat as employees. They are running the business and need help navigating the management of staff. And, if your leaders are predominantly left-brained individuals, analytical, transactional and solution oriented, that muscle of engagement that relies on empathy, vulnerability and transparency may not be easily accessible. They need your help.


Instead, offer support. Wrap into the benefit package 10 sessions of executive coaching both for the individual and the team. Incorporate self-care techniques into employee engagement. Offer health and wellness interventions as well as specialized resources for all types of care including financial health, elder and childcare. Improve and highlight the status of these programs--don’t bury them in a benefits package with little value.


And MOST importantly:

Elevate Human Resources. HR is a significant partner in strategy development and decision making right now. In the reporting structure, make it clear that HR has an influential role with the CEO and leadership staff. Empower HR to create systems and processes that acknowledge organizational health concerns. Make it a company-wide initiative. If you don’t have a robust HR department, consider contracting it out so that you get all the support you need in this new normal.You may want to consider training a group of employees to be ambassadors for mental health. You’ll find in every department there is a connector or influencer who often is the best candidate with the highest EQ.

Programs on the symptoms of depression, anxiety, isolation and other mental health issues open your opportunity to connect positively with your workforce. They will reap benefits and so will you.


My final messages to you are these:


This is cost effective! Elevating HR, checking your biases, surveying your employees is free. The resources I mentioned here--training your managers in empathy and communication, developing mental health ambassadors and providing coaching provide a ROI that is enviable.

For example; a mid level manager at a 100k salary would need less than a 5k training experience--10 sessions of executive coaching and a team training to discuss communication and empathy.


We have learned a very important lesson in this pandemic; employees can work from home! The debate about remote learning and leading has taken a giant leap forward. Our employees are nimble, they know how to pivot. In my experience, employees who are not very productive at home were not likely very productive at work either. But employees who are productive at work often are even more productive at home. In fact, with most of the working world, we have to teach them to stop and practice self-care, take responsibility for their own health, take PTO, turn off the laptop and phone.


So, consider expanding your concept of the workplace. At the very least, work to understand the impact of these past few months, including what went well. I know you face a lot of challenges going forward. I wish you all good things.






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