Working from home is blurring the boundaries between work and personal spaces and creating new mental health challenges for employees. This puts higher responsibility on leaders to not just allocate and review work in a remote ecosystem, but also recreate the social milieu of a workplace that supports mental health. The article talks about some of the best practices that are going to be critical for keeping workers motivated, engaged, and mentally healthy as we enter into the new year.
Good mental health means that employees are able to focus on their tasks, they feel connected to the workplace and empowered to share what they think or feel, are able to bring their ‘whole selves’ at work, and are able to deal with challenges that emerge in a positive, constructive manner.
All happy companies are similar, but all unhappy companies are unhappy in their own way – particularly when it comes to mental well-being. This is a concept that’s hard to define, and much harder to measure at the workplace, but at the same time easy to spot when it is present in an organization. As I sat down to pen my thoughts on the topic, I found myself taking a trip down memory lane to happy office times. What made those moments happy were myriad things – an out-of-the-blue interesting conversation with a coworker, the after-lunch rituals of catching up on the grapevine, working in a space surrounded by friends whom one could approach for help at any time, a sudden query resolved which brought a smile to a leader’s face, overhearing conversations that were part of ‘work as usual’, the support of a colleague after a challenging meeting – the list can indeed go on.
What is Mental Health
To borrow WHO’s definition for Mental Health, “Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
So good mental health means that employees are able to focus to their tasks, feel connected to the workplace and empowered to share what they think or feel, are able to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work, and are able to deal with challenges in a positive, constructive manner. Mental health, like any other indicator of health, can be understood as a spectrum – where one end represents individuals with mental illnesses that require medication and/or therapy, while the other represents individuals with high levels of satisfaction, resilience and optimism.
Between these two ends emerges a series of behaviors which indicate mental health challenges – sudden anger, severe pessimism, anxiety triggered over trivial matters, disconnect with people around, or cognitive distortions like ‘all or nothing’ thinking, magnification and minimization, etc. It is this middle cohort where the surroundings and effective practices can make a huge impact – just like someone obese may simply be breathless after climbing stairs today but can be at increased or lower risk of a heart attack based on their exercise routine.
Mental health at the workplace
As we came to terms with the new normal amidst the pandemic normal, there is now growing awareness about the importance of mental health, and many organizations have established tie-ups with “Employee Assistance Programs” or EAPs, where trained counsellors are available 24×7 to talk with employees and their families. Some organizations have also supported this with increased awareness about the importance of mental health, and worked towards dispelling the taboo around talking about it. HUL leads the journey here, starting with defining overall well-being, with mental health being a specific subset. They identified 4 elements that need to be in place to support mental health initiatives: leadership and management, communication and culture, improving resilience, and support. The critical element of this framework is that it acknowledges the role that organizations play in influencing mental health, rather than relegating mental health concerns to a purely employee-led issue. Other organizations like Johnson & Johnson and Google too have taken up leadership positions in advocating for mental health.
Many companies now have a fun hour in a specified frequency – be it a week/fortnight or a month, where employees connect and talk about everything other than work. This enables employees to let off steam, share about their lives outside work, share anecdotes, participate in an activity together – be it singing, yoga, Zumba dancing, playing games, etc. Sharing is an incredible support to mental health, as it surfaces thoughts and reaffirms togetherness.
All managers and HR professionals must understand the importance of sharing the responsibility for mental health between an organization and the employee, and some of the points below will help clarify how they can play a role in enabling positive mental health.
Mental health before the pandemic
If we keep aside the program approach to mental health (EAP tie-ups) and consider the cultural aspects of driving good mental health at the workplace, we will find many differences in organizations pre-pandemic. Most of these were in the way employees support each other to get through their workday and week. More than any specific policy, it was the organizational culture – of fairness, of leadership support, of supportive colleagues, of finding purpose and challenge at work – that enabled positive mental health.
These are some of the practices COVER STORY which were helpful at regular work:
- Colleagues experienced other colleagues more holistically; they saw how others behaved in meetings and outside, in front of superiors and with their team members, in formal and informal settings. Irving Goffman in his book Presentation of Self in Everyday Life writes extensively about this tendency of people to put on a show as their role demands – and being in office meant that one could also see the person separated from his/her official behavior.
- Colleagues could converse and collectively participate in sense-making at their workplace. This is far more important than gossip; it is a social activity, where plausible stories are shared and retained, and employees extract cues from this to decide on what information is relevant and what explanations are acceptable. In the absence of sensemaking, people may form skewed views about their workplace, which could distort decision making and even discretionary effort.
- Colleagues could give and seek help easily. Sometimes an offer for support would come even without asking, simply by observing another’s behavior. Since we could observe our colleagues in totality, we could make sensible decisions about whom to ask for help without the fear of being ignored. Common sense and research suggest that helping others make us feel good, and this was an important boost for mental well-being. Whether it was of help for a complex MS Excel task, or sharing a contact to get some information, or even sharing some background about a difficult stakeholder – all of these were naturally possible.
- Colleagues could bring and share their ‘whole selves’ at work. There were multiple informal cliques that employees joined spontaneously, where they shared tips on health, baby care, trading, books, movies, vacations and more. This translated into spaces where employees shared their interests and challenges outside work, in turn making it easier to communicate freely at work as well.
- Colleagues provided healthy competition and performance ideas. It was easy to review somebody’s performance and take personal notes to try something new. Sharing about something new was easy be it at lunchtime or breaks at work, which kept everyone updated, making it easier to build on that knowledge or find applications in one’s own work.
- Leaders – be it the CEO or the functional leaders – were more visible and accessible, at least for those who work in the same floor/ building. They could be seen having lunch, slipping in and out of meetings, walking around the floor, smiling or frowning, asking questions or information, sharing anecdotes about the larger organization.
Mental Health After the Pandemic
One of the biggest forms of disruption has been the absence of collective working in a shared physical space. Given the social nature of our work lives, this is definitely a large void and can perhaps only partially be filled with some of the practices described below. This puts higher responsibility on leaders to not just allocate and review work in a remote ecosystem, but also recreate the social milieu of a workplace that supports mental health. Some of the practices that have helped involve creating unique spaces apart from work meetings for employees to share, support, communicate and celebrate together.
The pandemic has reaffirmed the importance of leaders continuously communicating with their employees – through town-halls, open houses, and more. Authentic communication by leaders on what they are predicting for the business as well as acknowledging the efforts of employees reduces anxiety and is appreciated by all employees.
Spaces to share:
Many companies now have a fun hour at a specified frequency – be it a week/fortnight or a month – where employees connect and talk about everything other than work. This enables employees to let off steam, share about their lives outside work, share anecdotes, participate in an activity together, whatever that may be, from singing to yoga, Zumba dancing to playing games. Sharing is an immense support to mental health, as it surfaces thoughts and reaffirms togetherness. These initiatives can now be made available to a larger workforce given that everyone is working from home, and break down barriers between corporate and regions, functions, etc. Another practice is to spend the first 5-10 min of every meeting checking in on the members before beginning the work agenda. Some organizations have now moved to daily/ weekly/monthly short surveys to capture employee wellbeing and these can provide early warning signs that can be addressed quickly.
Spaces to support:
One of the key messages that all managers need to share with their teams is asking for help. In the physical workplace, it was easier to spot a colleague struggling with a high workload or a task that required higher skills simply by observation. That is no longer possible in the work from home landscape, and hence it becomes more important for employees to voice it out. Sometimes, employees are apprehensive that asking from help may seem weak and reflect poorly on them; these fears need to be assuaged. Innovative solutions to share work opportunities, or opportunities to help colleagues can also be crowdsourced through technology.
Spaces to communicate:
The pandemic has reaffirmed the importance of leaders continuously communicating with their employees – through town-halls, open houses and more. Authentic communication by leaders on what they are predicting for the business, as well as acknowledging the efforts of employees, reduces anxiety and is appreciated by everyone. Another important node in effective communication is conducting effective meetings, as it is now well documented that not being able to see participants’ faces and gauge their reactions causes an additional psychological and emotional workload for many. Employees also find meetings that are too long or too many in number tiring. Keeping meetings brief, with a smaller number of participants, keeping them specific to agenda, and sticking to time, can help.
Spaces to celebrate:
Many recognition platforms have been recreated online successfully, particularly award ceremonies. Birthday and work anniversary celebrations too have gone online with virtual cakes and snacks. Having a day off has now emerged as one of the best celebration and recognition tools. Many organizations have sent hampers to the homes of their employees to celebrate new teams coming together or big wins. These little gestures are now becoming pivotal in spreading connectedness and positivity.
Advocate best practices for individuals:
As the pandemic continues, it becomes critical for all employees to practice simple well-being rituals like promoting self-care, detaching from work, managing stress, getting adequate exercise, practising meditation and sleeping well. While a lot of material is available online, mature organizations actively communicate about the need to practice these and have leaders roleplay such behaviors. This can also strengthen the awareness about mental health in all employees, and sometimes even extend to their families and communities. Communicating about the Employee Assistance tie-ups is also critical to break the taboo about mental health and encourage participation for employees and their families.
Despite the challenges, work from home also offers several boosts for mental health. Increased quality time with family is the most important one, as many in the workforce have moved back to their hometowns to be with parents and relatives during the pandemic. Even those who continue in the same city, the time saved from travelling in traffic means more time to spend with family and even self.
At the same time, the pandemic has been a wake-up call for employees and employers alike to appreciate the importance of mental health and consciously cultivate habits for well-being, as the familiar rituals of work and play get dismantled. As the news of the vaccine spreads everywhere, with the hope of normalcy being restored in the future, it will be important to remember the habits around mental health and incorporate them along.
In the words of Glenn Close, “What mental health needs is more sunshine, more candor and more unashamed conversation.