Mental Health Month: Keeping Early Pandemic Lessons in Mind

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Over the past few years, the conversation around mental health in the workplace has changed for the better. As a Health and Wellness Professional in the Employee Benefits space, more of my conversations with clients and HR leaders in the last two years have been about enhancing mental health benefits either through medical plans or through third party vendors, than in my 10+ years in the field. As an individual who has both personally utilized mental health services and who has loved ones who have experienced mental health concerns from depression, to eating disorders to addiction and successful recovery, it is very heartwarming to know that employers are doing more than just checking off boxes and instead truly are making plans to support employees mental health journey’s. 

We’ve heard it time and time again that our mental health impacts every facet of our lives, we know it to be true. It impacts the relationships we have with ourselves and others, with the world around us, our physical health and our ability to produce meaningful work and so much more. While mask-wearing mandates have been removed, the consequences of the pandemic and isolation, compounded with life stressors in general are still being felt by employees near and far. Lives and lifestyles have changed significantly and many employees are struggling and grieving. It’s important to remember that we’re all in the same ocean (“post-pandemic life”), but we’ve got different boats (resources, support systems, coping strategies). Research continues to show that behavioral health in the workplace is suffering. Findings from The Standard’s 2020 Behavioral Health Impact Update show that nearly half (46%) of full-time American workers are suffering from mental health issues and forty-nine percent of full-time American workers self-reported problem use of alcohol, drugs, or prescription medication. Among workers struggling with mental health issues, more than half (55%) report it has been affecting their work since the pandemic began.

Companies that are aware of and addressing behavioral health and connecting people with resources and support are the ones who will reap the benefits of a healthier and more productive workforce. Engaging employees around mental health can be a challenge, which is why it’s important to look for any natural opportunity to do so. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, providing HR & employers an opening to discuss this difficult topic with employees and educate them on the resources available to them. Talking to employees about mental health can be a challenge as some simply don’t want to engage around it, and that’s okay, but don’t stop talking about it. The more you make it the norm to have open dialogue around difficult issues, the more engagement you’ll receive.

Stigma and shame act as barriers to seeking help, and the “grind culture” can make us feel like we need to work ourselves into illness, so it’s imperative for leaders to exemplify addressing and prioritizing mental health. I recently received an “out of office” message from an HR professional that said “I’ll be away from Monday to Friday with no access to email,  I’m taking time to rest and recharge! I hope you do, too! I’ll be back on email next week.” It was so simple and yet so profound. This individual letting their teams and others know that they value and prioritize rest and even suggesting that others reading make time to rest and recharge, too. Last week, I proposed a phone call meeting to a vendor versus a Zoom video-call, because I was feeling burnt out of being on the computer and I knew I could take a walk, enjoy the warm weather and have a productive conversation at the same time. I let them know my plan ahead of time, not because they needed to know, but because it’s a simple way to lead by example. That vendor said they were going to make their next meeting a walking meeting to take advantage of getting some movement in and a change of  scenery, they were feeling a little stir-crazy themselves. It had me thinking that normalizing the conversation around self-care moments and mental health isn’t something to hide out of fear of looking unprofessional, instead we can look at it as an act of leadership, and it can be threaded into many aspects of our work and interactions with one another.

We can look at the lessons we were learned throughout the pandemic, and carry them with us this Mental Health Month and beyond. 

  1. It’s okay to give yourself permission to remove the “mask” that you typically show up with at work, and to be real and honest with yourself and your teams about how you’ve been impacted. By doing this, you will begin to invite empathy into your own life, and into the workplace. By sharing your story, you will build trust, and provide a space for those who are experiencing similar stress to share even if they do not know how. Having these vulnerable yet important conversations let others know they are not alone, and it creates a team that trusts, and that is willing to move forward together. 
  2. It’s important to acknowledge events that are taking place right now. Even if they are not personally impactful, they are most likely impacting at least one of your employees. Don’t pretend not to see what is happening.
  3. Manager support has been key for many organizations throughout the pandemic, and manager-employee relationships play a critical role in overall employee engagement and satisfaction. According to Gallup research, employees who are supported and have frequent communication with their managers are about 70% less likely to experience burnout. When managers struggle, companies struggle. Conversely, when managers feel supported, they are better enabled to support their employees.
  4. Ask individuals questions that move past the general “how are you?”. Ask open ended questions that prompt employees to talk about how they are feeling. Some of these questions might feel outside of normal boundaries, but it’s important to move past surface level discussions.
  5. Now and always, remember that people are more than just their work. Create a space(s) for people to talk about more than just tasks and projects.
  6. Develop coping mechanisms to help manage your own mental health around exercise and movement, sleep, nutrition, hobbies or anything that gives you the opportunity to gain mental clarity to feel refreshed.
  7. Be flexible when and were it is appropriate
  8. Take advantage of the ‘Pause’, so that you can respond with clarity and intention, not react. This will mitigate burn out. By learning to respond, we can better manage our emotions.
  9. Identify and remove barriers so that individuals can do their best work.
  10. Appreciate your teams, recognize their productivity and hard work, believe in them, and support them. 

We cannot neatly separate life and work into separate boxes anymore, the pandemic has made that even more of a challenge for most of our workforces. If you’re looking for a way to get the conversation started with employees about Mental Health, we encourage you to share our Mental Health Month Resource, adapted from Mental Health America, with your teams. You can download the resource by clicking the button below.

Click here to download our Mental Health Month resource

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