Mental health isn’t easy to talk about. Often we don’t share how we’re feeling because we worry people won’t understand; we worry we’ll be shamed by society. We also might not ask people how they’re feeling, because we worry we’ll make them feel worse. When we don’t talk at all, people don’t get the help they need and they suffer in silence. We spend most of our days and lives at work, so how we communicate with our managers and team members can have a big effect on people’s well-being.
Sherrilyn Mills, an occupational health consultant based in Australia, knows this situation well. Mills works with mining companies and their employees, people who live and work in rural and remote areas. One of her focus areas is to help people reintegrate at work following an injury, though it’s often the mental recovery that becomes the biggest hurdle. “People might struggle to return to work after an injury, because an immediate supervisor isn’t supporting them or is being negative.” She points to the problem with mental illness: “With physical injury you can see it. With mental illness, you can’t see it. So, people don’t know what can be said and can’t be said, so they’d rather not say anything at all. People are concerned they’ll cross boundaries.”
Mills becomes the conduit—she works with employees to build a plan to help them recover. Mills’s work has stretched across work situations like role ambiguity, workload increase, and problems with work-life balance; personal problems might be financial, marital, or health-related. “I feel it’s a good approach—people don’t want to open up to their managers because they believe it can lead to problems with their role. Employees need a little more trust,” said Mills.
Whether someone is struggling with an issue at home or at work, business owners have a responsibility to ensure this person feels supported; the process starts with determining the best approach to create open and honest communication.
“When you care about your employees and your team, then it's [mental health] something you need to be aware of,” said Mohinder Jaimangal, founder of Curve Tomorrow, a digital health startup in Australia. Working in healthcare alongside psychologists and neuropsychologists has made Jaimangal and his senior team aware, perhaps more than most companies, of how mental health impacts people. “It’s part of good business practice to ensure that your employees feel physically well, but they feel mentally okay as well,” he said.
Jaimangal and his team use a tool called Officevibe to keep a pulse on how everyone is feeling across their offices in Australia and India. At any time team members can anonymously tell the senior team about struggles they’re experiencing. “It’s a good way to get feedback as an executive team, whether they’re suffering with stress, or we’re not acknowledging their work enough,” said Jaimangal.
“We can dig deep into whatever aspect they're unhappy about and then we can address it. If you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed or you're feeling bored, or something is happening at home with your family or some personal thing, we ask people to let us know—we’ll keep it confidential, but we can deal with it as a team. In one case, some of our team members were struggling with sleep and getting rest. We have a program now around mindfulness and sleep that they’re going through.” In the last six months, Curve Tomorrow spent $30K on mindfulness and sleep programs, as well as an overseas team trip.
While addressing work demands is important, investing in employee short-term and long-term wellness is equally important. Jaimangal and his team try to get ahead of wellness by getting each employee to have one major work-life balance goal for three months that helps their mental and physical wellbeing.
For example Jaimangal explains that an employee might decide, “I want to exercise two-to-three times a week at a gym.” Then his team looks at how to make that happen: “If you’ve got kids and you need to get home after work, maybe you take time off during the day, or take an hour off at a time that’s convenient for you and the team,” he said. “We do fortnightly catch ups.” We’ll ask, “how are you doing with your gym sessions?” Maybe you’re renovating a part of your house, and it’s a pressure you feel. We understand it’s a pressure that adds to your mental health, and if you can relieve some of that external pressure that you’ll feel better.”
The health of a team starts with the health of a CEO and founder. According to a study at the University of California, which investigated the prevalence of mental health conditions among entrepreneurs and their immediate family members, 30 per cent of entrepreneurs experience depression. Many entrepreneurs will never talk about what they’re feeling and as a result never seek help. People feel shame that they have an illness or that everything isn’t living up to their expectations of success.
“Leaders who are comfortable being open about their own personal challenges can set a good example for others,” said Christine Moberg, Ph.D. and head of psychology at Pacifica, a startup that provides daily tools for stress and anxiety management. “A culture of secrecy will only lead other team members to feel like they need to conceal what they may be going through, or not feel comfortable disclosing their own struggles.”
She mentions the importance of creating boundaries that respect a healthy work-life balance. “Avoid non-urgent communications or task assignment during nights and weekends. Leaders should consider their own work-life balance as well, and determine what level of separation of home and work life is most healthy for them...and try to stick to it.”
Jaimangal gets to the gym and practices yoga to handle the high levels of stress that come from running a business and looking after the livelihoods of his team members. He also looks to a support network of mentors and a psychologist to talk out what he’s experiencing and how to manage. “I have a really good mentor to help me,” said Jaimangal. “Even the executive team at Curve Tomorrow, we’re always keeping track of each other; we have a mental health goal not only for employees but at the executive level as well, whether someone wants to eat better, lose weight, or exercise.”
When you or your team are feeling burned out, focus on reframing difficulties as challenges to overcome, rather than viewing problems as roadblocks. “Working together to overcome difficulties strengthens teams and improves resilience,” said Moberg.