BlogWhat does mental health have to do with below the surface leadership?

December 2, 20210
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Some of the most progressive business leaders are finally realizing that we can’t simply leave our personal lives at home when we come to work every day, and creating a psychologically safe atmosphere to discuss personal matters can have a positive impact on productivity, employee wellbeing, and company culture. However, these leaders are the exception: most companies still operate under an unspoken “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding trauma and personal issues that may affect performance, which has been the norm for decades. As stated in my book, Leading Below the Surface, it’s common to grant a couple of days off for bereavement and even offer counseling through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), but these basic gestures don’t meet a bare minimum standard of support that employees deserve as human beings.

Trauma at work remains on my mind as I have lost two additional family friends over the last few months. I also still hear stories of others who have unexpectedly lost people. We live in times where the threat of immediately losing people is more pronounced than ever. And the statistics support it. According to a recent report:

Three quarters (76%) of full-time U.S. workers reported experiencing at least one symptom of a mental health condition in the past year—up from 59% in 2019 (a 29% increase or 17% point difference).

The most common symptoms were: Burnout—56%; Depression—46%; up from 32% in 2019 (a 44% increase or 14% point difference); Anxiety—40%; up from 37% in 2019 (an 8% increase or 3% point difference).

I had a great discussion with my friend Blythe Landry about trauma in the workplace during one of my recent Clubhouse Leading Below the Surface community chats, and a few attendees chimed in to share their stories and ask questions. (Join my club here.) Blythe is a trauma coach, and her book Trauma Intelligence just launched in early October. As she shared during our talk, “pain is intricately linked to every aspect of our lives, and work is what we do with most of our lives.” We simply cannot separate trauma from work. So creating a work environment where your employees feel safe being their authentic selves requires getting below the surface so we can access and hold space for employees to navigate their trauma.

A couple more important points emerged during our conversation about the way we experience trauma and how we can approach it respectfully in the workplace: first, everyone navigates trauma differently. What’s helpful for some may not be as helpful for others; healing can be found in spirituality, therapy, and even physical activity, but none of those activities are “better” or “healthier” than the others. At work, this means that it’s important to build relationships with people and to respond to their needs—not what you think they need. The other key takeaway is that trauma can affect how we seek help. Our society tends to judge how people cope with hardships and grief (and grief is directly tied to trauma), so offering support or simply listening in a way that’s not judgemental is always a relief.

How to navigate mental health in the workplace

Anyone who wants to champion empathetic listening and mental health awareness in their workplace can find appropriate opportunities to do so. Even the smallest gestures can help.

Here are some practical tips for taking action in your workplace:

Start with education. If you’re an employee or manager, find an educational resource (i.e. a book or article) and request to have a discussion about it. For some, talking about their feelings is a threatening situation, so starting with education sets a more helpful and healthful tone. Alternatively, you can start with yourself. Let your coworkers know that you’re working on transparency and you’re a safe person to talk to.

Pair stories with data. Sharing stories and pairing those stories with data is a powerful way to help your company make the shift to commit to mental health in the workplace. Too many people think that the trauma “ended” when people went back to the office. That is far from the truth. Encourage people to continue to share stories and to pair them with the latest research on mental health in the workplace.

Don’t shut down workplace emotions. When someone starts showing strong emotions or crying, pause to listen to them and ask “What would you like us to do right now?” Consistently showing your team that they won’t be punished for how they feel builds a culture of psychological safety. Shutting the person down has the opposite effect.

Practice P2B listening. This one’s straight out of Leading Below the Surface: Person to Belonging (P2B) listening is discerning the extent to which someone belongs in that session or on that team. For me, it kicks into high gear when someone is being talked over, shows extreme discomfort, or starts crying. You may decide to pause and give that person some time to decide how they want to move forward, if they want to turn their camera off, or if they need to switch to a more personal space.

Build safe networks. If you are going through a tough time or have a strong trauma response that comes up at work, identify one or two people that you trust and share what’s going on to the extent that you’re comfortable. Encourage others to do the same. Find a phrase or a signal that will let your safe network know that you need them to sit with you for a few minutes or that you need to step outside.

Taking the first baby steps towards opening up these discussions is incredibly important because small steps can lead to big shifts: both microaggressions and small gestures of empathy can be strong cultural change levers, for better or worse. How we are treated at work follows us home and affects the people who love us, so being able to talk about our feelings directly with our bosses, coworkers, and employees can create positive effects in every part of our lives.

There’s a chapter in my book Leading Below the Surface on “Navigating a Surface World,” which includes some stories and strategies for protecting your emotional wellbeing at work and being that support person for someone else. Order your copy today!

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LaTonya Wilkins. All rights reserved.

LaTonya Wilkins. All rights reserved.