Look around… So much of our mental health is based on the environments we find ourselves in. Our homes. Our communities. Our places of work. Some of these environments we can control and others we have very little control over. But regardless, the people we surround ourselves with, the tasks we engage in, the stressors that are present, all have an incredible impact on how we feel about ourselves, our lives… and what comes next.
So in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month (and this year’s theme, Look Around, Look Within) we at The Sound have decided to take a closer look at mental health in the workplace. With 4 in 5 workers reporting that they feel emotionally drained from their work and 1 in 5 likely to experience a mental health condition this year… those numbers don’t lie. It’s time to stop all the chaos, log out of the apps, close down the laptop… and stay still for just a second. To sit and really think about mental health in the workplace (in our workplace!). What it means to our employees, how they experience it, and more importantly, what we can do better to support them (because we know we have some more work to do).
As a part of our DIBE (Diversity, Inclusion, Belonging, and Equity) series “More Than a Month”, we asked Brynn Harris, VP and Head of Analysis at The Sound, to share her perspective on mental health in the workplace… and she did just that. Check out her raw and unapologetic POV which may have you look at how you show up for yourself (and how work shows up for you).
Ok, how often have you found yourself in this situation?
You’ve shown up for a status call on a Monday morning and the first thing your co-workers ask you is…
“So, how was your weekend?”
My 3.5-year-old was up for most of the night throwing up all over her brand-new crib sheets. My house is a pit, despite the fact I keep fucking cleaning it. I’ve got this stitch in my neck that just won’t go away (not that I’m doing anything to help it). I promised myself I was going to go to the gym this week… but decided to give in to every food craving instead. I got into a fight with my partner over… honestly, I can’t even remember now. And to top it all off I woke up this morning with an impending sense of doom for no apparent reason (and that’s on a good day)
But instead, you look at your co-workers straight in the face, through that oh-so-familiar tiny, little Google Meet window, and you say with a big old smile:
“It was great, thanks!”
Maybe they won’t notice your left eye twitching. Maybe they won’t notice you haven’t finished blow-drying your hair yet. Maybe they won’t hear your stomach growling because you’ve yet to eat breakfast. Maybe they won’t notice. Maybe yes… likely, no.
So, why? Why do we do this? What do we pretend? Why do we fake it? Why do we appear like everything is ok, fine, great, dandy, amazing… when it’s not? When it can feel like the whole world is crashing down on us. When getting out of bed and putting cereal in our faces feels like a marathon. When we can’t seem to gain one ounce of clarity (not one) on who we are, what we want, where the hell it is we’re going, let alone what shirt we’re going to wear that day (which is typically whatever’s cleanest and closest). When sometimes we don’t even recognize ourselves in that tiny, little Google Meet window.
And yet we need to show up. Ready to think. Ready to work. Ready to do the damn thing.
Because, we’re “professionals”, right? We’re paid to come to work. Do our job. Do it well. Or frankly not have a job. [Simon Sinek has something to say about this].
But here’s the thing. We’re more than “employees”. We’re also human beings.
With bodies, and minds, and emotions, and souls, and insecurities, and anxieties, and hopes, and dreams… and repeating, crippling, toe-curling nightmares. And we carry it all with us to work… every day. Like one of those worn-out leather satchel bags the stiff, corporate type used to wear back in the 80s. Strap it to our back like it’s part of us. Sometimes it’s heavy. Sometimes it’s light. Sometimes we stuff it waaaaaaaay back in our minds, where no one can see it. And other times it’s written all over our faces, whether we like it or not.
So, what now? What do we do with all of “our stuff”?
The even bigger question is… What place does mental health truly have in the workplace?
Here’s the reality of the situation. I hate to be one to tell you this but, the company you work for… is a company. It’s a business. A corporation. We can’t really fault them for not knowing the intimate details of each of their employees’ personal lives and what they need from a mental health standpoint. It’s not on the monthly P&Ls, right?
So what can we expect then from our employer when it comes to supporting mental health in the workplace? What does that look like?
Well, it could be a company retreat, where you get to lounge with your co-workers (in person!), and get a pretty cocktail with one of those little umbrellas in it.
It could be regular 1:1 check-ins with your line manager.
It could be all that vacation that they actually encourage you to take.
It could be an external speaker addressing time management techniques.
It could be having access to one of those mindful meditation apps.
It could be having your health package cover a handful of therapy appointments a year.
And yes, having a registered massage therapist come in and give you a back rub in the afternoon never hurts (hell, maybe they’ll be able to finally get that stitch out in your neck).
Because they’re all “benefits” right? They’re meant to benefit us. And they do. In their own way. And we appreciate them (especially those cute little umbrellas).
But some things you can’t massage, sleep, vacation, exercise, or “have a glass of wine” your way out of. Especially when it comes to your mental health.
So, here’s what it takes.
It takes genuine care and attention for the people that work for you. Actually giving a shit. That’s it. Not for the sole purpose of “increasing productivity”. But to ensure employees feel safe, valued, and happy… every day.
- It’s knowing you can show up to work and be accepted by those around you for exactly who you are. That includes being able to have the odd bad morning or day (or week) and not feel labeled or judged for it. That includes being free to express your unique point of view on the world, which not everyone will share but you know will be listened to. And that includes those personality quirks that only a mother could love ; )
- It’s knowing that you will be respected by others and not put in uncomfortable situations. And I don’t just mean “respecting each other’s time zones”. It goes much deeper than that. It means knowing you can come to work and feel genuinely safe – physically, emotionally, and psychologically. It’s knowing if you can opt-out of a project because you find it triggering. It’s knowing you can politely challenge your manager’s opinion on a call without fear of being ridiculed.
- It’s knowing that you have a sense of autonomy. It’s being able to focus on the quality of your work vs. the number of hours you work (because your employer trusts you). It’s being able to organize your day in a way that is conducive to your personal life… to free up mental space for other things that drive you. It’s about being able to work from home in the morning, go to the gym or pick up the kids in the afternoon, and then finish up work at night. Because you can.
- It’s knowing you can make a mistake and learn from it. Even if it takes you a few tries. It’s about not being fearful that screwing up, missing something obvious, or dropping the ball will cost you a promotion. And instead, it’s knowing that failing is part of kicking ass.
- It’s knowing you have a voice on calls. No matter the position you’re in or the title you hold or how long you’ve been in the industry for. It’s knowing no question is a dumb question. It’s hearing that little voice in your head during a meeting that tells you “Just say it!”… and actually listening to it… and saying it! (and feeling so proud you did).
- It’s knowing the door is always open… always. Whether it’s the door to your line manager, HR, or the President of the company… It helps to know that if you are struggling with someone (big or small) you can talk about it. You can find a resolution together.
- And it’s knowing your employer truly recognizes your talents and abilities, and the unique value YOU bring to the work that you do. It’s getting real opportunities to grow. It’s getting credit for the work that you do and the contributions you make (and getting fairly compensated for it). It’s about never feeling replaceable.
Yes, the benefits help. It all helps. But what’s just as important as any benefits package is just knowing. Knowing that you work in a place that consistently supports and nurtures you and your mental health. Working in an environment that accepts mental health as a normal, acceptable, and valuable part of the human experience. And ultimately, creating a psychologically safe culture where everyone feels safe to raise issues (even among each other) without fear of misconceptions, stigmas, labels, judgment, bias, retaliation, or discrimination.
We need to remember, our employer is our employer. They’re not our therapist, our mother, our neighbor, or even our best friend. We can’t expect them to know exactly what we’re going through. Or know exactly what we need. That’s on us. We are each responsible for our own mental health (and what it takes to take care of it).
So it’s time we pay attention. To how we’re feeling, where we’re at, how much energy we have, how much pressure we put on ourselves, how heavy our workload is, the boundaries we still need to create for ourselves… and if we’re struggling, we say something.
“It’s too much”
“I need help.”
“I need a break.”
“I can’t do this on my own.”
And then it’s up to our employer to turn around and say…
“How can we support you?”
So, if you’re an executive, HR, or any leader, and you’re stuck at where to begin or if you should, here are some final thoughts. Yes, there’s stigma around the topic, and some companies ignore it or are afraid of what discussing the “elephant” in the room will do to turnover, morale, or employee satisfaction. But, guess what… 8 in 10 employees say they would quit a job over mental health. Companies that embrace mental wellness strategies not only have higher productivity but also higher engagement levels, promote psychological safety, and increase retention.
So, be vulnerable and transparent with your team to create a psychologically safe environment that allows them to reach out for support, if and when they need it.
How do you create a work environment that supports mental health for your employees?
- Understand how mental health impacts your employees then develop your leaders on awareness and understanding of mental health. Train managers on what to do if they see signs of emotional distress and substance use disorders.
- Include mental health coverage and/or Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) as part of your healthcare plans and share other local or national resources to best support the diverse needs of your team.
- Use communication to reduce stigma and increase access to mental health resources. Build an inclusive culture that helps employees bring their best selves to work and offers all staff professional development or workshops on mental health and resilience.
- Promote well-being by offering flexible schedules, encouraging employees to use their vacation time, building community through social interactions, and organizing groups that meet regularly.
- Train your staff on problem-solving, effective communication, and conflict resolution.
- Address workplace stress by ensuring workloads are appropriate, offering flexibility to be autonomous (work-life integration), having regular manager check-ins/communication, creating an anti-harassment environment, and fostering group celebrations of recognition to boost morale.
So, considering this year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness Month is Look Around, Look Within, we challenge you to do just that. As an employee, to Look Around your workplace and demand systems are in place for those who may be struggling with mental health. And as an employer, Look Within your organization to ensure the culture you are creating genuinely supports employees’ mental well-being in the workplace, beyond benefits packages. It’s time.