The central challenge for organizations and managers is bridging the gap between what we think we know about mental health in the workplace and implementing some of the steps we propose to improve outcomes. In culinary legend, it said that the ultimate test of a chef’s skill is making a simple but perfect omelet out of very few ingredients and simple equipment. Promoting mental health at work requires taking all the professional and personal ingredients we have distilled and thoughtfully assembling and rearranging them. Doing so tests the manager’s skill and requires empathy, practice, dedication, patience, and skill.
It also requires considering the employee as a whole person rather than the sum of their quantifiable parts: salary, performance ratings, and productivity metrics. “All decisions regarding employees, work, and projects should be looked at through a holistic lens and how it affects an employee’s overall wellbeing,” said a mental health consultant. “It takes time, it takes strong leadership to push against internal challenges around change, but that’s the best solution.”
Managers must be careful to strike a balance between well-meaning efforts and overstepping in a manner that can be potentially detrimental to mental health. Gilbert Brim’s book, “Ambition,” notes that we strive for “’just manageable difficulties’: challenges that test and stretch our skills, but don’t set us up for certain failure.” This is an exercise in balance. Just as intense heat and pressure are needed to turn carbon into diamonds, some stress can be beneficial and challenges employees to grow. “I am adamant about letting the person do their job without babysitting them. I’m also a proponent of helping or coaching my team members to reach beyond their comfort zone to accomplish more and for them to reach their higher potential,” Ms. S explained.
However, managers cannot be idle or apathetic when their workplace breeds intense stress or an employee is struggling. Fear often holds us back. We lack the courage to engage with troubled employees and confront the workplace conditions that deprive our colleagues of the mental health benefits of work. Perhaps we’re worried about legal ramifications, or damage to our professional reputations or that we will expose our own vulnerabilities. When firms indicate that employee well-being is valued, employees reward that behavior with loyalty.
As we have described, often the fear begins with stigma. Most of us would not hesitate to address an employee’s physical health problem. We pride ourselves on being “approachable”; we have “open door policies,” and we value open communication between all levels of our organizations. But when the conversation begins to address the “emotional” rather than “rational” side of our employees’ brains, we often freeze. Once we adopt the mindset that our employees’ mental health matters to us and our business, we can begin to dissolve the boundaries between our “work selves” and our “life selves.” Once we as managers bring our whole selves to work, we will begin to recognize and nurture them in others.
How to do so is the central managerial challenge, and a challenge greatly complicated by the effects of stress — within the firm and throughout our connected lives. We need to develop new tools to help further shift from the mindset that we were once expected to demonstrate at work (focused, neutral, unemotional, and productive) and instead accept how some of us might be (distracted, depressed, anxious, and inauthentic) and talk about how to improve our lives. There is more and more focus on emotional intelligence as a key asset of successful, long-term leaders.
Building organizations that support and contribute to better employee mental health requires managers to take an honest measure of themselves and their organizations, to take initiative, and then institute change. According to Professor Sapolsky, “the same things that make us smart enough to generate the kind of psychological stress that’s unheard of in other primates can be the same things that can protect us. We are malleable.” Are we ready? And are we willing?
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Published with permission from Compassionate Management of Mental Health in the Modern Workplace by John Quelch.