Post by Jim Jensen...
I read an article from Harvard Business Review (HBR) about a year ago and recently ran across it again. It’s still timely and it speaks to the importance of specific leader behaviors that we’ve been championing for many years. But now, as employees continue to return to work with anxieties that are unique to our times, the importance of these behaviors are magnified.
For some time now leaders have been hearing about the need to focus on the mental health of their employees. Hearing that line, however, might stop many good leaders in their tracks. I can hear many of you thinking, “I’m not a therapist!” “My background is in business (or sales/chemistry/engineering etc.) not in psychology or counseling! The fact is you don’t have to be a therapist to focus on your employees mental health. If you are a good human being, and you can feel compassion, you have the essentials.
In the article, the top four of the eight behaviors, being vulnerable, modeling healthy behaviors, building a culture of connection through check-ins, and offering flexibility and being inclusive, have long been part of the work we’ve done with leaders and their teams. Your job as a leader has always been to build productive, effective, cohesive teams, and to support the mental health of your people. But in light of what we’ve all been through for over a year and a half now, and the impact it has had on everyone, it’s more important now than ever.
The HBR article is: 8 Ways Managers Can Support Employees’ Mental Health
by Kelly Greenwood and Natasha Krol. I’ve highlighted excerpts (in the gray boxes) that are 100% aligned with our work, along with a few notes of my own.
Uncertainty breeds anxiety, and we are living in uncertain times.
Summary: According to recent research, 42% of global employees have experienced a decline in mental health since the pandemic began. What can managers do to support their team members during these trying times? The authors offer eight concrete actions managers and leaders can take today to improve mental health in the face of unprecedented uncertainty, including expressing their own vulnerability, modeling healthy behaviors, and building a culture of communication…
As we navigate various transitions over the coming months and years, leaders are likely to see employees struggle with anxiety, depression, burnout, trauma, and PTSD. Those mental health experiences will differ according to race, economic opportunity, citizenship status, job type, parenting and caregiving responsibilities, and many other variables. So, what can managers and leaders do to support people as they face new stressors, safety concerns, and economic upheaval?
What Can Managers Do? Even in the most uncertain of times, the role of a manager remains the same: to support your team members. That includes supporting their mental health. The good news is that many of the tools you need to do so are the same ones that make you an effective manager.
One silver lining of the pandemic is that it is normalizing mental health challenges. Almost everyone has experienced some level of discomfort. But the universality of the experience will translate into a decrease in stigma only if people, especially people in power, share their experiences. Being honest about your mental health struggles as a leader opens the door for employees to feel comfortable talking with you about mental health challenges of their own…
Those of us working from home have had no choice but to be transparent about our lives, whether our kids have crashed our video meetings, or our coworkers have gotten glimpses of our homes. When managers describe their challenges, whether mental-health-related or not, it makes them appear human, relatable, and brave. Research has shown that authentic leadership can cultivate trust and improve employee engagement and performance.
Model healthy behaviors.
Don’t just say you support mental health. Model it so that your team members feel they can prioritize self-care and set boundaries. More often than not, managers are so focused on their team’s well-being and on getting the work done that they forget to take care of themselves. Share that you’re taking a walk in the middle of the day, having a therapy appointment, or prioritizing a staycation (and actually turning off email) so that you don’t burn out.
(My note) Even letting them know that you’re carving out time to spend outdoors or for a workout in the middle of the day, goes a long way toward alleviating the guilt that people feel for doing what feels right and productive to them, especially if they’re working from home. Are you open to them doing what works for them? Do they know you’re open to that? What impact might that have on them?
Build a culture of connection through check-ins.
Intentionally checking in with each of your direct reports on a regular basis is more critical than ever. That was important but often underutilized in pre-pandemic days. Now, with so many people working from home, it can be even harder to notice the signs that someone is struggling. In our study with Qualtrics and SAP, nearly 40% of global employees said that no one at their company had asked them if they were doing OK — and those respondents were 38% more likely than others to say that their mental health had declined since the outbreak.
Go beyond a simple “How are you?” and ask specific questions about what supports would be helpful. Wait for the full answer. Really listen, and encourage questions and concerns. Of course, be careful not to be overbearing; that could signal a lack of trust or a desire to micromanage.
When someone shares that they’re struggling, you won’t always know what to say or do. What’s most important is to make space to hear how your team members are truly doing and to be compassionate. They may not want to share much detail, which is completely fine. Knowing that they can is what matters.
(My note) Personal, one-on-one check-ins are one of the best ways to build and maintain your individual relationships with your people! But don’t forget the value of doing check-ins as a team now and then. It doesn’t have to be complicated, and they can participate whether at work or at home. You might approach it this way.
“The purpose of this check-in is just that, to check in, and to hear how we’re all doing. If you are so inclined, share one thing you’re struggling with this week (or this month) and one thing you’re feeling positive about.” You can kick off your check-in by being real (being vulnerable) with them and sharing one of your own struggles and high points. Your people will follow your lead. Doing team check-ins can also create common bonds where people can realize they’re not alone in feeling what they’re feeling.
You could also add to the check-in one thing they might need from someone on the team, or from you. If people tell you what they need from you, be as honest as you can, but be careful not to over promise. Tell them what you can do, and what you cannot do. If you need to think about something, tell them you’ll consider it and get back with them. Then get back with them. That kind of behavior will go a long way toward building the trust you need with each individual, and with the team, so that they can perform to their fullest. When you’re done with your check-in, remember to thank them for their participation.
You might even consider sending out a link to this post, or to the original article to set the stage for your first check-in.
Offer flexibility and be inclusive.
Expect that the situation, your team’s needs, and your own needs will continue to change. Check in regularly — particularly at transition points. You can help problem-solve any issues that come up only if you know what’s happening. Those conversations will also give you an opportunity to reiterate norms and practices that support mental health. Inclusive flexibility is about proactive communication and norm-setting that helps people design and preserve the boundaries they need.
Don’t make assumptions about what your direct reports need; they will most likely need different things at different times. Take a customized approach to addressing stressors, such as challenges with childcare or feeling the need to work all the time. Proactively offer flexibility. Be as generous and realistic as possible. Basecamp CEO Jason Fried recently announced that employees with any type of caretaking responsibilities could set their own schedules, even if that meant working fewer hours. Being accommodating doesn’t necessarily mean lowering your standards. Flexibility can help your team thrive amid the continued uncertainty.
Normalize and model this new flexibility by highlighting how you’ve changed your own behavior…
Final thought: The bottom line is that when you make sincere efforts to practice these healthy leader behaviors, you will lead people who are more trusting in you and in each other, more mentally healthy, and more effective.
I hope you found this helpful!
To read the full article, including the other four behaviors, communicating more than you think you need to, investing in training, modifying policies and practices, and measuring results, click on this link: 8 Ways Managers Can Support Employees’ Mental Health
Primarily serving Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Ann Arbor and Detroit, Michigan, we’ve worked with companies worldwide as leadership team development, and corporate team building facilitators.
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Jim Jensen, MA LPC is the Principal and Founder of Dynamic Teams LLC, specializing in helping leaders of companies build healthy culture through dynamic leadership teams.