Engineering workplace safety for mental wellness
“Control your emotions before they control you”.
“You can’t cry at work. If you show vulnerability here, you are weak.”
We’ve all heard versions of those at some time or another at work. The challenge with trying to “control” what we are feeling is that we often repress it. Historically, organizations have never been the place of choice to vent out what we are feeling. Hidden behind facades of courtesy and professionalism, we unintentionally harm ourselves.
Moods, emotions, sentiments, and emotional intelligence are all part of work. Any organization worth its salt is telling people that they need their whole selves at work. To top it all off, we are now a remote workplace. But there’s a silver lining. A report by clutch says that 52% of workers say their boss’s availability has remained the same as before the pandemic. It might mean that companies are committed to maintaining workplace relationships like they used to be before we were forced to adapt to the new normal.
As early as 1997, Bond University professor of management Cynthia Fisher conducted a study called "Emotions at Work: What Do People Feel, and How Should We Measure It?" The most common negative emotions at work were found to be frustration, disappointment, dislike, anger, and nervousness. The point is that people are affected emotionally by what happens around them, even at work. The trouble starts when we think we can “control” those responses rather than working to “ease” them. That’s where psychological safety at work comes into place.
How can you acknowledge emotions at work?
Be aware of individual labels, moods, and emotions
Remote working has ensured that we can’t get a coffee with a colleague to vent off steam. Everybody comes to that zoom meeting with a set of different emotions.
A quick launch question - How are we feeling today - can get a lot of responses. Tell them to type it in the comments section if that’s easier for people or if you have a large group.
A research study about moods and emotions in small groups tells us that affective sharing of moods and emotions helps with group-level functioning.
It enables other people to share what they are feeling too. Think of it as an informal quick support group.
Draw on the fact that empathy is contagious
Based on the same study, when colleagues share about themselves, there’s a lot of imaginative self-involvement that others exhibit. There’s more emotional sharing, and the short-term moods and emotions tend to dissipate as people start feeling heard and valued.
This is surface-level emotion management at work. Where you just have enough time to engage in banter before the business at hand must be addressed. While it helps ease off symptoms, it doesn’t help manage the emotional noise that each employee feels within.
What can you do about that? Let’s explore in the next segment.
Empowering leaders to extend individualized support
A 2010 systematic study by McLeod showed that workplace counseling could reduce sickness absenteeism in organizations by as much as 50%. This was a decade before the pandemic hit. Cut to 2021, according to a survey of 1,379 US business decision-makers from the Transamerica Center for Health Studies - while almost all employers believe improving mental health in the workplace is good for their business, 17% acknowledge not offering any resources at all.
Given the times, there is an ad-hoc demand for short-term counselors, grief therapists, and generalized psychotherapy.
While earlier workplace counseling meant a face to face in person context, now that definition has broadened to include smaller support groups online with an empanelled psychotherapist. Organizations have also seen a rise in OD and HR professionals seeking training to become counselors.
With that as the context, the first step is to train leaders in providing individualized support. Every employee’s situation is far more complex and unique than it was before, with a very fine line now between work and home.
As per a quick study done in the US at the beginning of the pandemic, some of the behaviours that help with inducing a feeling of ease, trust, and support are -
- Leaders checking in on their team members and being aware of their circumstances (socioeconomic ones too)
- Leaders are doing their bit to help team members balance home and work. Delegating tasks as per revised bandwidth and not based on what they were already doing before the pandemic
- Including every team member in the, “what’s your opinion” meeting to ensure that everybody has equal representation and say
That said, there’s more that organizations can do as tangible support initiatives to ensure that emotions don’t get the better of us in an already stressful situation. In the same study, it was found that retailers have added online resources to help employees improve their mental well-being, apart from the ones they can already avail themselves of in their EAPs. Some retailers in the US are providing access to paid mobile apps that can listen and talk to employees. They have empanelled tools and vendors that speak directly to mental health.
In fact, employee surveys at Walgreens have revealed that stress, financial concerns, the need to care for children, and ailing are everyday worries. Right from telehealth consultations to COVID-19 toolkits, they are ensuring that employees feel valued and cared for.
How can organizations provide a community of support?
To begin with, employee assistance and work-life services programs should now generously offer in-house support of counselors and support groups to help employees manage fear, uncertainty and grief. Many companies have taken to global campaigns to reduce the stigma that arises from having mental health issues. They’ve also gone a step forward to introduce regular 1:1 health coaching calls for employees. In fact, a trend that’s quickly catching on is a fun vent/ rant zoom meeting for parents who are managing young children and work during the same hours.
Companies like Chevron and Culligan Water have also contributed to local efforts at the ground level to ensure that society as a whole has access to licensed mental health professionals. Emotional well-being is what many companies are working at - of the society and of their workforce as a whole - be it providing access to meditation apps, or encouraging team engagement sessions, or ensuring that people who’ve lost family members mandatorily go into grief counseling to manage all the uncertainty.
The crux is on sparking conversations and feelings that people feel compelled to repress to be acceptable to society.
Grief and anxiety are not crowd-pleasers and are often accompanied by discomfort and awkwardness.
Anne Richter, a health management consultant at Willis Towers Watson, says that “the pandemic is shining a light on flaws that existed before we knew about COVID-19.” While some employers did provide a full spectrum of well-being, including emotional, financial, and mental, she says, “Still, many fell short when it came to helping employees with such issues as anxiety, depression, and stress.”
The objective of having a community of support is to let employees know and feel that they are not alone and they do not have to put up a brave act at the workplace if they are experiencing emotional turmoil. The idea is to ensure that employees feel whole and well.
To ensure that the momentum continues, leaders will need to keep evaluating the mental health of their workforce time and again, and bolster their efforts by elevating the ability to understand, willingness to embrace discomfort, and compassion towards one another.