Iversoft's COO, Laura Townson, shares 3 ways to help you promote openness about mental health at work.
Mental health affects us all.
Whether or not you’ve personally experienced mental health challenges, you almost certainly know someone who has. By age 40, approximately 50% of Canadians will have or had a mental illness in their lifetime. These are our siblings, parents, neighbours, and colleagues.
The issue is pervasive and can impact an employee’s output more than their physical health. While only 53% of people with physical health issues say it impacts their work, a striking 82% of employees with mental health struggles acknowledge it impacts their work.
As business leaders, we have a responsibility to normalize mental health challenges in the workplace. It’s up to us to provide support and resources that enable our employees to find professional help and learn coping strategies.
To help you promote openness about mental health at work, I’m sharing 3 of the major lessons I’ve learned over my career and how I try to implement them in my position as COO at Iversoft every day.
1. We Are All Human
Mental health and how to support those who are struggling is a topic that’s often avoided by leaders. Not because we don’t care, but because we often overthink the role we need to play as part of someone’s support system. What’s needed from you most is pretty simple — compassion and understanding.
Many of us are also reluctant to bring up the conversation because it means talking about our own issues. For so long I was trapped by the idea that being tough, resilient, and impenetrable was required to climb the ladder of success. But when I realized that trying to live up to this myth was indirectly training people to treat me like a terminator instead of a person, I committed myself to breaking the stigma.
I became transparent with my team about my experience with burnout, hospitalization, and how the path I had been walking damaged me physically and mentally. Almost immediately, staff began to call me their “cone of silence” or their “vault”, where they saw my office as a safe space to open up about their own stories. This gave me a rare opportunity to understand my employees on a deeper level, and how better to support them to be successful in their roles.
I learned just how many people are scared to bring up their struggles at work for fear of being labelled a bad worker. According to one survey, 38.6% of Canadian workers wouldn’t tell their current manager if they were experiencing a mental health problem.
Employees are programmed to believe that to struggle is to have a weakness that needs improving. And when it comes to mental health, this translates to:
- “If I tell my manager I’m having a hard time, will they assume I can’t handle my workload?”
- “Will I be overlooked for future promotions?”
- “Will I be coddled and treated differently from my peers?”
Silence is the devil they know.
But by acknowledging that we are all human and being open about your own experiences, you have an opportunity to address mental health in a way that puts employees at ease and creates a starting point for better communication.
This Lesson at Work
- Be brave and be vulnerable.
- Look for opportunities to share your stories of challenging times or overcoming a mental health issue. This can inspire others to speak openly or bring comfort through shared experiences.
- Don’t wait for employees to open up to you. Assume that anyone could be struggling despite the face they show the world.
- Remind employees that struggling is normal and that resilience is not a job requirement.
- Normalize that sick days are not just for viruses and flus, our minds get sick too and need time to recover.
- Revisit your corporate values regularly and reflect on how you live up to them in the way you lead and what could be improved.
2. Lead by Example
We all know there’s a big difference between “talking the talk” and “walking the walk”. You can claim you’re a compassionate leader who cares about mental health issues, but your employees don’t model themselves after what you say, they model themselves after what you do.
If you tell employees to find balance and respect their time outside of work, but they see you responding to emails at midnight on a Saturday, they’ll believe that working around the clock is what is most valued at your company.
Technology has improved the world in so many ways, but it can also feel like a chain tethering us to our jobs. Roughly 23% of employees say they feel burned out all the time and an additional 44% report feeling burnout sometimes.
This has a disastrous effect on mental health. One in five Canadians now experience mental health problems annually, yet only half of those (about 1 in 10 Canadians) seek help through mental health services.
As a leader, it’s your job to take action and prioritize the wellbeing of your people as much as profits. Show them how to find balance and where to get help when they need it by finding those things for yourself. Be especially careful not to glorify overtime as “driven” or “ambitious” behaviour that should be rewarded.
And if you still find yourself working in the middle of the night on a Saturday to fill the rest of your life with activities that bring you joy, just delay your emails until official work hours so your team gets the right message about their own free time.
This Lesson at Work
- Be intentional and transparent with your team. I let my team know when I’m going for a walk because my brain is broken in the middle of the day.
- Be honest about the help you need. My team knows I have bi-weekly therapy appointments on Monday afternoons.
- Set boundaries and stick to them. I have blockers in my calendar and times when my notifications are snoozed.
- Remind your team about their health benefits and normalize using them for mental health.
- Take your vacation time!
3. Check-in With Your Team
Most leaders these days have some form of regular check-in with their direct reports. While the frequency and format may vary from person to person or organization to organization, the majority of leaders value dedicated time with their employees in my experience.
But through conversations with my peers, I’ve noticed that much of this one-on-one time focuses on day-to-day tasks, work activities, and status updates. I want to challenge leaders to think about this time differently.
You can always catch up on the status of projects at the team level or through quick email updates. But check-ins are a unique opportunity to concentrate on the broader needs of an individual employee, which may be very different from their peers.
Your job during this time is to be a resource for your employee. Try talking about them, not their projects, not your own initiatives or goals — them. Focus on building a connection. If an employee feels more connected to you on a personal level, they will feel more connected to their work.
This is also a good time to broach the topic of mental health. But tread carefully — this is a sensitive topic.
Simply asking the employee if they have been experiencing mental health issues is a little too direct, but you can talk about how a lot of people are struggling at work at the moment, including any struggles you may have experienced and let the employee know that you want to make sure they’re doing ok given certain stressors.
When you can tell an employee is disconnected from work or not acting like themselves, do a values exercise with them. It can give you insight into what resonates with them right now, which you can use to look for opportunities to shift their focus on projects or tasks that fill this need. For example, if an employee values “service” or “community” most, ask them for ideas about how to foster better cohesion in a remote workforce or ask if they’d like to champion a new community initiative at the company.
This Lesson at Work
- Day-to-day updates are important, so make sure you carve out time for operational meetings so one-on-ones can remain focused on the employee.
- Create a shared agenda in advance with prompting questions. Sometimes it’s easier to write out how you feel rather than say it out loud.
- When people are going through difficult times, it’s normal for their priorities to change. Take time to learn about their current values and find ways to create work that resonates.
- Remember that your job is to listen. A one-on-one is their time — let them lead the discussion and how they’d like to use this time.
Too many people silently suffer from mental health issues at work, worried that acknowledging their difficulties will permanently brand them “incapable”. But these issues fester and breed in silence, and efforts to “power through” result in decreased productivity and burnout.
As leaders, it’s our job to set the stage for our employees to accept the natural limitations of being human. This means being transparent and vulnerable, living your recommendations for a balanced life, and setting aside time for honest conversations with all of your direct reports.
The more mental health struggles are discussed in your company, the less they seem like a big deal. And the smaller an issue feels, the more we are all empowered to seek help and find the tools we need to improve our health.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, here are some resources that may help:
- Canadian Psychological Association
- Canadian Mental Health Association
- Crisis Services Canada
- Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association
- Mental Health Crisis Line
- Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention
U.S Resources (Source: Healthline)
- American Psychiatric Association: Find a Psychiatrist
- American Psychological Association: Psychologist Locator
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: Find a Therapist
- Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance: Find a Pro
- International Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Foundation: Find Help
- SAMHSA: Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator
- Veterans Affairs: VA Certified Counselors