Multiple studies show that anxiety in the workplace is peaking and burn-out at work is common. What now? The intuitive answer would be for businesses to create more awareness of mental health symptoms and how to get help. Many companies are doing just that. But today’s employees are asking for more. A younger demographic in particular is looking for more open, meaningful connections to leadership and want to hear directly from them on mental health issues.
In a recent study of 1,000 employees, 62% of respondents said having someone in a leadership role speak openly about mental health would make them feel more comfortable talking about it themselves. The research also showed that only 26% felt any action was being taken to address mental health in the workplace, according to Jennifer DaSilva, president of WPP creative agency Berlin Cameron and Kantar, a leading data insight and consulting company that conducted the research.
The take-away: Not only are employees holding leaders responsible for the change, but they are also proving an adage true. The farther you walk away from accountability, the less effective you become. “Even though companies are taking steps to ensure health and wellness, those resources may not be enough, says DaSilva. “While it’s a step in the right direction for companies to put wellness programs in place, we also have to act at the individual level as everyone needs are different.”
People Want To Talk
Interestingly, 57% responded that to help reduce the mental health stigma, it should be openly discussed. Employees aren’t just looking for physical care. They value mental health coverage, too. But companies spend far more on physical health insurance coverage than mental health care, according to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The authors of the article make a case for covering more mental health costs, explaining, “mental disorders top the list of the most burdensome and costly illnesses in the United States at over $200 billion a year, well exceeding the cost burden of heart disease, stroke, cancer, and obesity.”
Employees have said they want an end to the discrimination and bullying that harms people with mental illness, but until recently it’s been hard to put into words exactly what has been missing from the workplace. This study identifies that missing piece. Employees are craving true connections and experiences. Finding common ground and sharing experiences is the magic that creates a culture shift.
Of course, there’s a right time and a right place for those conversations. Every leader has to set boundaries. “I try to bring my real self to work every day. I do have to hedge though because anxiety is the killer of all kindness. And when I’m anxious, I can be unkind,” says Aaron Harvey, Co-Founder/CCO of Ready Set Rocket and Made of Millions, a resource created, as the site says, “For Suffers, By Sufferers” of mental illness. “I’m constantly trying to balance being my “true self” while also recognizing my weaknesses.”
The Kantar research shows the search for clear—but redefined—boundaries is officially on. Similar to previous surveys by Kantar and Berlin-Cameron, the younger workers were, the more they said that they had tried to help a coworker when they seemed distressed at work. Younger workers were also more likely to have heard a leader talk openly about mental health.
The most commonly mentioned solutions that would make a work environment feel safe included “leaders acknowledging there are problems” such as workplace burn-out, ‘”being more open and understanding” and “allowing time off for mental health/wellness days”. Respondents said there was too much discussion of programs and not enough high-level opening up being authentic.
It’s not realistic for everyone to open up to tell their story. There are a lot of considerations a person should take before disclosing information. In writing for Forbes, I have learned that the language you use is very important in this space—and that people’s views vary widely. Even making distinctions such as, Am I talking about this in the context of mental health and wellness? or Is this more about mental illness? can be important distinctions. The goal of telling your story, in my opinion, is to help a person to be their true self at work. Equally important, it helps others to open up and find common ground—we’re all human. If company leadership was opening up and showing their vulnerability, these respondents were not aware of or included in those conversations. Being referred to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) could help employees with a personal crisis, but was not the answer fo a host of other stress-related problems brought on by work. For example, respondents said an EAP can not necessarily address how managers and team leaders show support for each other or can work together to reduce stress. Personal feedback and conversations show leaders care. Employees felt less a part of work when they were not at the table for conversations about stress, burnout, and other common mental health problems.
Avoidance Is The Opposite Of Action
We often say that a company’s success hinges on its people and their potential for growth. How can you maximize growth? The research in the Kantar study keeps coming back to one simple action—getting more people at all levels talking to each other.
Not meeting face to face. Not discussing a problem one-on-one. Moving on without explanation—all of those little habits can lead to larger losses in talent and productivity. Silence is not an effective change-management strategy. Most executives I spoke to acknowledged that being vulnerable as a leader has power. It is an opportunity for growth for everyone.
Avoidance comes in several forms, but often it includes a closed-door or an email when a call would be more helpful. If the boss is upset, they cut off communication altogether, indicating that taking the time to talk about your missteps has no value. Stressful? Yes. A form of disengagement? Definitely. Action is a daily habit of talking openly and being approachable while still setting clear limits and boundaries. The action comes in the form of simply asking for help or feedback or the occasional opportunity to vent. Performance feedback is closely connected to mental health and wellness at work. Imagine if quality control at your company measured the positive, negative or neutral outcomes of conversations between leaders and their teams. Would you be seen as avoidant (what I like to call accident-prone) or action-oriented? Even if you don’t create a conversational/confrontational index, imagining that every conversation was being assessed would be impactful.
Welcome To The Interactive Phase
Luckily, leaders know that training employees to talk about mental health in the workplace is very successful. What’s stopping leaders? My guess is that it is not as costly or time-consuming as it is an inconvenient truth. Phase 1 on mental health management is awareness. What if Phase 2 is interaction, which is, to put it bluntly, different than sending out memos about healthcare choices and yoga rooms. As DaSilva said earlier, those are wonderful options. But they are not enough.