In the last 14 months, as the lines have blurred between our personal and professional lives more than ever before, workplace discussions and action around mental health have never been more critical. Burnout is real and even employees who didn’t content with mental health struggles pre-COVID are experiencing the impact of the chronic stress the pandemic has introduced. Those, like myself, who already had a mental health issue to keep in check alongside their work, family, and home duties are in varying stages of struggle.
So, what do we do? Well, first, we need to acknowledge the criticality of destigmatizing, normalizing, and prioritizing mental health at work and we need to understand that doing so is a collective responsibility of us all. Yes, it is May and this is Mental Health Awareness month, but posting a few links to articles on this topic or checking the box on a ‘mental health meeting’ for your team does not a movement make. At Future of Field Service, we’ve been working to incorporate mental health into our content and dialogue because we realize how imperative it is to have this be a topic of discussion and an area of action as a regular course of business – not one month a year.
I recently sat down with Johnny Crowder, who I noticed from his active presence on LinkedIn surrounding mental health, to ask for some input on how businesses can improve and make progress in caring for their employees’ mental health. Johnny is a suicide and abuse survivor, TEDx speaker, touring musician, mental health and sobriety advocate, and the Founder & CEO of Cope Notes, which is a text-based mental health platform that provides daily support to users in nearly 100 countries across the globe. We started by discussing the fact that, in today’s world, personal lives and professional lives are simply lives – innately interconnected. “A lot of people who are in a corporate environment, they’ll start experiencing a mental health issue where it’s interfering with not only their work, but also with their work-life balance,” explains Johnny. “And then that’s affecting their sleep and it’s affecting their eating, and then that’s affecting their performance. And we have leaders who are saying that’s personal stuff. No, it’s not. No, it’s not. Mental health is not a purely personal matter.”
Small Steps, Repeatedly and Continuously
Johnny urges you to look at mental health as an area of responsibility and key focus, not as a buzzed-about topic that requires you to check items off a list. “Oh, it’s mental health awareness month. And for mental health awareness month, we’re going to send an e-blast out to everybody. And then maybe if you reply to a poll, you can get entered for a chance to win a water bottle. We could even donate $500 to a local mental health charity and then do a press release about that,” says Johnny. “Some companies do this and then at the end of May, all the executives are patting themselves on the back. I see a lot of that. And I don’t even have to explain why that’s not enough.”
But while it is important to take a genuine approach to incorporating mental health care into your workplace, it is also important to keep it natural and practical. “I will say that what I do see commonly is kind of too much, too soon. ‘Let’s have yoga every morning!’ I think this stems from a focus on policy rather than culture. And the best policy in the world won’t save you from a bad culture,” says Johnny. “When you look at really incorporating mental health into your culture, I think small incremental steps and including it in existing policy rather than drafting a whole new policy work best.”
Think about where, within your existing processes, you can incorporate mental health discussions and actions that are non-intrusive, natural, and repeatable. “My sister in law was trying to introduce spinach to her kids that don’t like vegetables. She put it into their grilled cheese sandwiches! I was like, this is such an innovative approach to getting these kids eat spinach. And she’s like, ‘Well, yeah, if I just pour out a big bowl of spinach no one’s going to eat any. You have to work it into things that they’re familiar with that they like.’ And I think the same is true for mental health,” explains Johnny.
What this looks like in practice often seems small or non-descript, but Johnny is confident that’s what works best. This can look like simply working to ask your employees more personal questions, about their hobbies or what they enjoy or their families or what they did last weekend, to simply get to know them better and to open a non-role related dialogue. “Focus on casual mentions. So using a term like anxious or anxiety or depressed or depression, even just those two very basic things or asking people like how they are feeling, or literally just start with asking people at the top of a meeting what they did over the weekend,” say Johnny. “It’s about fostering interpersonal conversations and connections. Because if all your work conversations are about work, I can guarantee that people will never be fully honest in the workplace.”
Embrace Vulnerability & Lead by Example
It’s important for leaders who are in any way uncomfortable with the idea of mental health as a focus to realize that vulnerability is the new superpower. “The strong, fearless leader with a stiff upper lip worked for a long time, but it is entirely outdated,” cautions Johnny. “A few decades ago, what people feared most in a work setting was a spineless leader or a leader that couldn’t take action or command authority. Now people’s fear is a careless, cold, callous leader. They don’t want to follow a robot. Why do you think there are authenticity and vulnerability trainings everywhere for leaders? It’s because people want to work for somebody who they know is a real person.”
Accomplishments and authority as a leader are still important, but today those things need to be balanced with relatability, authenticity, and humanization to be effective. The most impactful leaders realize how much power there is in building influence through connection rather than coercion and how critical personal relationships and openness are in attaining this. How you speak as a leader, your willingness to open up and share some of your own personal moments and even struggles, can go further in normalizing mental health in the workplace than countless dollars spent on formal programs.
Don’t Be caught Unprepared When it Matters Most
Finally, Johnny points out that as you start to normalize mental health discussions in the workplace, you need to be prepared with action when someone opens up about an issue they need support on. “Don’t be empty handed. Have a few go-to resources. And I would say, make sure those resources are tiered for the level of seriousness of the issue. Be sure you’re ready to cover different bases,” he advises. “And never minimize the impact of just being present and listening. If you’re identifying someone who might be struggling, the best thing you can do is take them out to lunch. Best thing you can do. No pretense, just like spend time with them.”