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May 20, 2024 | 11 Mins Read

Why Mental Health Matters So Much in Service – And Some Expert Advice on What to Do About It

May 20, 2024 | 11 Mins Read

Why Mental Health Matters So Much in Service – And Some Expert Advice on What to Do About It


I hear time and time again at conferences that, “Service is, and always will be, a people business.” In service, our people are our greatest asset.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and the 2024 theme is “Take the Moment.” According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Take the Moment campaign is intended to “encourage us to foster open dialogues, cultivate empathy and understanding and to share resources to support individuals and families on their journey towards mental wellness.”

We’re “taking the moment” to discuss this topic today because it is one that is important to me, personally, and important to you – our audience – because it’s an issue that is demanding attention in the workplace today. No longer can discussions around mental health be avoided at work, no longer can employee wellbeing be seen as “soft,” and no longer can leaders be successful without deploying empathy, compassion, and vulnerability.

I look at the progress we’ve made in destigmatizing mental health with deep appreciation but look at how much work there is left to do to eliminate bias and truly support teams and am eager to watch the leaders, individuals, companies, and organizations that will step up to lead the charge. As someone who navigates various challenges such as anxiety and depression that stem from C-PTSD, I am thankful that the world is becoming one in which you can show up as you are in regard to mental health and not fear the same judgement or backlash that was once guaranteed. I’m also thankful that the workplace is becoming somewhere where mental health journeys can be normalized and wellbeing prioritized.

When I consider the work left to be done, I find myself drawn back to the power of storytelling. In a recent podcast with Marco Hugo Gutierrez of Tetra Pak, we discussed how the company is putting the focus on employee wellbeing that it deserves. Marco shared that when Tetra Pak looked into the engagement of its field workforce, isolation was one of the biggest challenges they faced.

Isolation being an issue for a field engineer who rarely visits an office or engages face-to-face with teams makes sense. But the reality is, we can all face periods of isolation at work – some due to remote work arrangements, and others when they feel they can’t share openly or be themselves in a work setting.

Last week, we featured the story of Rob Stephenson, TEDx Speaker, Mental Health Campaigner, Keynote Speaker, CEO of FormScore®, and Founder of the InsideOut LeaderBoard® on the UNSCRIPTED podcast. Rob lives with bipolar disorder and based on his own life experience was motivated to make a career out of campaigning for mental health and helping organizations take action in an area that can still bring with it some apprehension, sensitivity, confusion, and even skepticism.

If you yourself do or have struggled with your mental health, I hope you will take from this that you are not alone and that there are people who care and are willing to listen – me being one of them. I also hope that maybe if you’re in a position that you’re able, you will consider the power of sharing your own story. If you have team members you want to be able to do a better job of helping, I hope you’ll find value in some of the advice Rob shares. If you’re reading this and question why Future of Field Service is covering this topic, I hope you question that response and really dig into what’s behind it.

Words of Advice from a Mental Health Advocate

Let’s start by ensuring an understanding of why smashing mental health stigma matters so much. “I think the reason that it's so important to smash the stigma and challenge these misconceptions is at the most extreme end, it's costing lives. People are not getting the help and support they need. They're not comfortable asking for help. And we're losing lives to suicide,” explains Rob. “But also, if we can start to receive help and understand what is driving mental ill health and start to manage that, whether that's with medication or whether it's with exercise, via social connections, whatever it might be, we can then just tap into those strengths that come with being human.”

It’s helpful to consider that stigmas are rooted in fear, because that allows action through education. “We want workplaces where teams can thrive, but we can't thrive if we don't feel comfortable talking about a challenge. Stigma itself comes from fear, and fears are often countered by knowledge. So, the idea of educating ourselves about these conditions is really important. I think much of this comes from the way mental illness has been portrayed over the years. It's Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the Lunatic Asylum, all of these words that have come into common vernacular. We've got to break all of that down. We're human. We're all individuals. We're all unique. We're all on a continuum of something, whether it's neurodiversity, whether it's mental health, whether it's well-being, whether it's opportunity, whether it's privilege. And some of us are just more extreme. That's not wrong. It's just human. And I think as we accept the differences in society, then that comes with understanding. Understanding comes with education and awareness.”

Beyond stigma, people can often freeze because they are afraid that if someone opens up to them about a struggle they’re having, they must know how to help. Rob dispels that myth, “The question I often get asked by people is, what about if someone says that they are struggling to me? What should I do? We're fearful of that as well, because as humans, particularly in the workplace, our jobs are generally to fix things, right? You can't fix someone who comes and says, I'm experiencing depression, anxiety, PTSD, or whatever. There are professionals that can help to do that over time to manage and to come to terms with. But as a friend, a boss, or a loved one, you can't immediately solve that problem, and nor should you try. And I often say that we're not qualified to fix people, but we are qualified to listen as a human being. And sometimes knowing that person is there to listen unconditionally, and you can be yourself with that person, that's a huge benefit when we're struggling. And it's these little simple things that make the burden easier to carry.”

Rob observes that companies are at varying points in not only accepting the importance of mental health as a workplace focus but in taking action to make progress. “We're seeing another sort of continuum there of organizations that are not doing anything, organizations that are ticking or checking a box, and then organizations that truly value the well-being of employees,” he says. “It’s okay that we're all at different stages; what I don't like to see are organizations that are understanding for their employer brand that we've got to do something about well-being. So, we'll get an employee assistance program. We'll maybe have a few awareness sessions. We'll have some benefits, and that's well-being: done! The organizations that get it understand that well-being is not just a benefits issue; something to offer people when they're struggling. Organizations that really understand the work that needs to be done here understand that actually it's about ways of working. It's about fairness. It's about belonging. It's about inclusion. It's about unrealistic work demands. It's about psychological safety.”

This distinction is tied to whether a company is truly taking a people-first approach, or simply checking a box of what they feel they need to do to “contribute” to such an important topic. “Most people-oriented organizations, somewhere in their marketing materials, you'll see people are our greatest asset. So why do we invest more time servicing the photocopier in certain cases, right? It's about thinking, what is the objective of our organization? Now, most organizations, again, will have some objective around the creation of shareholder value, which is right because that's how these organizations are owned. But what about the creation of value for employees beyond the financial? Is coming to that workplace a life-enhancing experience? If not, why not? Because it should be. And if we get this right, those employees will be higher performing. There's a whole bunch of research coming out of Oxford University and other organizations that categorically show that a well-engaged workforce will perform better. It leads to higher personal performance, team performance, even company and stock market performance. So, if we get it right, the other performance aspects will follow. But we've got to choose to get it right for the right reasons that we want employees to have that experience, not just to check a box to say we've done well-being.”

Solidly agree on the importance of the issue, but unsure where to start? “Talk to your employees and really understand what's going on for them,” suggests Rob. “Because we can often sit at the center in large organizations and make assumptions with what will work for their well-being without asking the people that we're trying to help. Psychological safety, as championed by Amy Edmondson of Harvard, talks about the belief you won't be held back, punished for speaking out, admitting a mistake, or coming up with an idea. But, where our well-being is concerned, I think it's really interesting to understand whether employees feel comfortable in saying, my work demands are negatively affecting my health right now. What can we do about it? And I think if we can get to a culture where that is seen as safe in doing so, I think that's a really good starting point.”

The role of the leader in creating that psychological safety is imperative and depends significantly on the willingness to be vulnerable. “Can the leader talk about, it doesn't need to be a mental health challenge, can the leader talk about a time when they've needed to prioritize their own well-being at work? What have they done to do that? Can the leader talk about their well-being non-negotiables? What are the two or three things each week they need to do to stay well?” asks Rob. “If we start doing that at the team level and asking others what their non-negotiables are, then you're normalizing the well-being conversation. You're giving people permission. Leaders influence work and work culture, but it takes time to do so.”

Know that, as a leader, you don’t have to have mental health struggles to apply vulnerability and move the needle in this area. “We all have mental health. We all exist on a continuum. Some of us will experience a mental health challenge or a diagnosable mental illness. Everybody will experience mental ill health from time to time, excess stress or difficulty sleeping or whatever it might be. And then we all have well-being, and we can all prioritize our well-being. Mental health would be one aspect of our well-being alongside physical well-being, spiritual well-being, et cetera,” explains Rob. “So often the conversation, particularly with leaders is well, I don't feel comfortable talking about my mental health. Well, that's fine. But recognize that you will do things as a leader to maintain good mental health or positive well-being. You'll prioritize sleep. You'll maybe exercise. You might think about your nutrition. You might socialize with friends. You have time with family. All these things nourish us, right? So, for the leaders that might be a bit uncertain about even speaking out on this topic, you're actually doing it already, but by talking about it, it normalizes it in the teams. So, then we're not asking people to share back how they're feeling about any mental health challenge. We're saying, what do you need to do to stay well? Is it taking your lunch away from your desk? Is it putting a micro break in the day? Is it going to the gym? Is it that soccer match? Is it book club? Whatever. We all do different things to look after ourselves, but if we can get people talking about this, then that sends a strong message in the team that it's not only, you don't have permission, but you are encouraged to go and do this.”

However, if you do have a mental health challenge, sharing some aspects of it – if you’re willing – can be powerful. “I'm generalizing here, but most people wouldn't feel too uncomfortable putting a doctor's appointment on their schedule. Many more people would feel less comfortable putting therapy on their schedule. And again, if you see a leader putting therapy in their diary, in an open diary, that sends a strong message,” says Rob. “And I love to hear CEOs talk about going to therapy.” This is an example of how you can illustrate the acceptance of prioritizing mental health without getting into details.

Rob reinforces the importance of looking at wellbeing not through the lens of benefits or perks, but in really assessing if the ways of working in your organization are healthy and sustainable. “Often we'll see huge investment in well-being programs and benefits that are then underutilized and often will be underutilized because of poor communication, but mainly because people feel they don't have the time or the permission or the psychological safety to do so,” he cautions. “And you see a lot of memes out there, you can't meditate your way out of burnout or a 16-hour day, which is true. Benefits have their role, but you've got to start with ways of working. Are we putting people under appropriate amounts of pressure? Do we have appropriate resources for this job in hand or for this particular team? Do people feel safe in their workplace? Do they feel like they've got a sense of belonging? Can they be themselves? Are we creating an environment that creates a social connection with our workplaces, particularly if we're doing more stuff over Zoom or we've got people on the road? Let's start the hard work, which is looking at culture, looking at teams, looking at psychological safety, looking at what's really going on for people.”

If you’re still not convinced now is the time to act, or take further action, to normalize mental health and promote employee wellbeing, the proof is in the stats. “Some organizations still feel that well-being is a soft issue,” says Rob. “For the cynics, I'd point them to the research. So Indeed, the jobs board, have a happiness index run by Oxford University and they've collected basically about 20 million data points of people ranking their companies on well-being. They’ve taken that data and mapped it against the stock market and for the top 100 companies on well-being, they significantly outperform the markets. Now, in a market where there is a war for talent and employees, ignore well-being at your peril. So, if you don't believe it's morally the right thing to do and you have a duty of care to create a culture conducive to wellness, understand that you’re missing a really big performance opportunity by ignoring well-being.”