There was a time when uncomfortable conversations at work were limited to performance issues, employee tardiness, bad breath, and maybe inappropriate clothes. With the onset of the pandemic, and with people working from home, the aforementioned conditions are in most cases just symptomatic of something deeper that’s affecting employees.
Financial stress, poor mental health, below-average living conditions, children being schooled at home, teenagers with nothing to occupy their time - and a general feeling of hopelessness all are added to that list of uncomfortable topics. Not being able to talk about all that compounds the shame that we feel at not having our lives together and further hampers our mental health. In as early as 2015, Sammy Nickalls, a writer at NYT, started the social media hashtag #TalkingAboutIt to encourage people to be open about their struggles with mental illness.
The act of sharing life is as important today, if not more, to simply convey the fact that one is not alone and that what feels overwhelming could actually be spoken about with those who share the feeling, or are open to listening to you.
A survey by Officevibe Pulse Survey data reported that nearly 1 in 4 employees do not feel that their manager is aware of employee pain points. That’s almost 25% of the workforce - reason enough to make space for uncomfortable conversations. In times such as these, poor performance, absenteeism, excessive comments, and such are but symptoms of a larger malaise that nobody is addressing. As Sue Eaglebarger, VP Human Resources at Lawson Products Inc says, “Always start out seeking “why.” Don’t assume you know the root cause.”
Let’s find out how to make space for uncomfortable conversations at work.
Addressing and helping manage financial uncertainty
As per the Federal Reserve, 40% of American families wouldn’t be able to put together $400 in case of an emergency. This was before the economic fallout of the pandemic. Many companies put together employee hardship funds to help employees with financial troubles.
Employee hardship funds are one way to encourage these conversations and to ensure that people feel supported and valued.
Employees and the company contribute to a fund, and employees can apply for cash grants from the fund. Hardship funds help employees when disasters strike. They are part of a hidden social safety net. In a report by the Aspen Institute, it was seen that grantees with incomes between $40,000-$60,000 annually reported feeling less distracted at work, spending less time worrying about their finances, and being less likely to miss work due to personal finance issues.
Some companies also provide access to financial advisors and financial planning services.
Making it okay to apply for a cash grant, or having a policy in place where every employee knows that they are contributing to a rainy day fund is exploring vulnerability at its rawest.
Respectfully disclosing and sharing mental health experiences
In a report by Unum, it was found that people living with mental health problems contributed an estimated £226 Bn gross value added (12.1%) to UK GDP. That is 12.1% of GDP overall. The same report says that disclosure is a positive experience. A majority of respondents who disclosed a mental health problem to an employer described it as an overall positive experience and were more aware of the support available to them than those who had not.
When the workplace supports reasonable adjustments at work to factor in an employee’s mental health, that’s when these conversations really matter.
As per the Equality Act (2010) in England, employees can expect that their work timings be altered to suit their medication and rest periods. Or that they are given access to necessary technology and hardware to ensure that they can do their jobs better (a laptop/ keyboard/ internet). Or even excusing people from networking events to help manage their social anxiety and such. It is when work is governed by practical empathy that the workplace itself becomes a platform for people to voice themselves. If they know that their challenges will be met with concern and not derision, that’s when employees share more of themselves and all of us feel a little less lonely in return.
Coming together to battle organizational stress
Many companies have put together stress management groups to re-initiate employees in the process of taking control of their work lives. With the blurring lines between home and work, these groups act as listening agencies that make it a safe space to talk about what’s bothering them without offering any immediate solutions.
Employee resource groups, networks, and social groups serve to build a sense of community among co-workers and build a strong support system at work.
Neerja Birla, founder, and chairperson, Mpower, a mental health organization in India says, “First, listen. Give time to your friend or family member going through a problem. Don’t judge. And second, be aware of what are the red flags. You are not alone. Remember, it’s okay not to be okay.”
Employees want to work (even those with mental health challenges or uncomfortable situations at home) - and employers want employees to work. So the intent is in place. What remains then is to ensure that employees feel supported at work - to be able to continue doing their work - without judgment and stigma. Right from addressing financial challenges, to making it okay to share personal struggles at work and then in effect becoming a support group for each other - companies can play a considerable role in making the workplace a safe place for employees to be their whole selves.