Most of us work every day, and it’s in the workplace that we spend most of our time – even more time than with our loved ones! Because of this, when mental health issues arise, it’s not exactly like you can switch off your feelings and just ‘get on with it’, whether you’re an employee or a boss. It’s important to address mental health concerns within the workplace, but how is the best way to go about doing this? We asked Gabrielle Ortega, MA, TF-CBT, Founder of OM Therapy Coaching and Holistic Mental Health Coach for her ideas.
1. “My company is a small-sized business and we currently don’t have any mental health policy within the team. Where should I start?”
Gabrielle: With 1 in 5 adults living with mental illness during normal, non-pandemic times, now amid the COVID crisis it’s more important than ever to have a solid mental health policy in place to support your team. When your staff’s mental health is well taken care of, your business will thrive!
Some ways you can do this:
1. Create a safe, inclusive environment so your team feels comfortable talking about their mental health needs. We see it all the time– management that bully staff; executives who shame their team members when they make a mistake; passive-aggressive power-playing behavior that doesn’t really serve the business’s growth. Don’t fall for the false belief that shame and aggression heed success. They don’t. Compassion does!
I like to make it a regular part of our weekly Monday focus-and-action meetings. We’ll go around the table and before getting into business, we’ll check-in with each other about how we’re doing. I’ll get vulnerable with them and share what’s on my mind, and each of them will do the same– I set the example and trust them with my feelings, and they trust me with theirs. It takes courage to share our inner world with others, but it leads to an incredibly connected, supported, and happy team– and that inevitably fuels the success of your business.
2 .Audit how much work your staff is taking on, and make sure burnout isn’t a factor for anyone. You might need to hire an additional team member, or adjust how different tasks are assigned so that each of your employees only takes on what they can truly manage.
3. Survey your staff anonymously about what their mental health needs are. Speaking up during a team meeting about this can feel overwhelming for some, so this offers a great alternative that’s more private.
4. Offer as many resources as you can! This can include PTO for “mental health days”, making sure mental health services are covered by the company insurance plan, sending out a monthly newsletter with mental health tips and tools, or you can even hire Psychologists and other specialists to lead workshops for your team about self-care and managing mental health in the workplace.
2. “9–10 hours are our standard working hours as we are in a startup space, but I am worried about the workload I have assigned for my team. What if one of them reaches the point of burnout? Having said say, we also have a tight deadline on everything…”
Gabrielle: This is a tough situation, but one that I know very well! I worked 10-12 hours a day building my business during the first year, and there are ways you can incorporate self-care while taking on such an intense mental load, so that you won’t burnout.
First, assess how much work you are actually giving each member of your team. Is it feasible? Do you need to expand your team or spread the workload to more people, so it’s not all on one individual?
Second, make regular self-care breaks mandatory at least once per hour. Our brain can only truly be focused and functional for a certain amount of time before we need a break. Recent studies suggest that the ideal work-to-rest ratio is actually 17 minutes of rest for every 52 minutes of work. This means after minute 52 of concentrated effort, your staff need to take a complete 17 minute pause. While this might seem counter-intuitive when you have tight deadlines, it actually will make your team MUCH more functional than if they were to plow through 10 hours of work, functioning at 5% mental battery. The quality of their work will be better, you’ll spend less time cleaning up careless mistakes, and your staff will feel VERY supported.
It’s also key that they step away from their screens during their breaks, and actually get outside for a mindful moment in the sun, or to stretch, meditate, or eat a snack. The brain can only handle so much, but if you schedule clear breaks at these intervals throughout the day, your team will be able to kick butt without burning out!
3. “My mentor mentioned to me that I should share my feelings more often, but my question is what/when should I share with my team? I don’t know what is appropriate or not…”
Gabrielle: It can be really tricky to toe the line between being open and vulnerable about our feelings, and creating a toxic environment where we are using our staff in place of a therapist or coach. It’s important that we as leaders be able to contain and process our own emotional experiences before sharing them with our team. I don’t think it’s a great idea to share your knee-jerk feelings with your staff, immediately as they are coming up. This can lead to rupturing relationships and creating a reactive, sometimes traumatic environment. But I think it can be tremendously valuable to share your feelings when you’ve gained a bit of emotional distance from them and can relay your experience in a way that fosters safety and connection with your team.
4. “To be honest, I only check in with my team when I ask for their work progress but I also understand the importance of having a positive workplace environment. So, how can I build a culture of supporting each other through check-ins?
Gabrielle: This is by far one of the most common mistakes I see business owners make. If you only show up when you want something from your team, they are going to feel resentful, used, and unappreciated. Just because you are paying them a salary doesn’t mean that they are automatically going to be invested in their work and will give you their best. Only checking-in when you need something is one of the fastest ways to see your staff’s productivity and quality of work decline. What it comes down to is simple: it becomes a mindset of “if you don’t care about me, I don’t care about you,” and thus your staff won’t show up in the ways that will really support your business’s goals.
I am constantly touching-base with my team throughout the workday, via the Voxer or Slack apps, about both work tasks AND how they’re feeling. This high-touch system allows for the door to always be open for my team to be able to have these conversations around their mental health with me, or with each other.
I also suggest making it routine to check-in every Monday morning with your team and ask how they’re doing. Then, be sure you’re observing their behaviour and tuning-in to the signals they’re sending you. Is someone who usually loves to talk, suddenly really quiet and withdrawn? Has someone missed a deadline or two, when that’s not the norm? Do you feel or sense that something is “off” with one of your teammates? Listen to your spidey senses, and just reach out and ask if everything is okay.
The gesture of reaching out is sometimes enough to make a huge difference – they may not be ready to share with you what’s on their mind yet, but just knowing that you noticed and that you care can help them feel a whole lot better. And if they do open up, simply sit and allow them to share what they’re experiencing and feeling. Don’t worry about offering a solution or needing to have an answer to help them, just listen, validate, and say you are there to support them in any way you can.
By leading the way and checking-in frequently with your team, you are creating a culture of compassion and empathy. With this dynamic, your team is guaranteed to thrive and you’ll see your business flourish in ways you never thought possible.