Ever since the world entered a lockdown, one thing has been clear – the mental wellbeing of employees has been put to test like never before. Layoffs, furloughs and the uncertainty of the future have helped accelerate mental breakdowns. For those fortunate, it may seem like a sin to complain but while productivity has shown a marginal decline, morale and mental health have taken a noticeable dip. As economies begin to open and return to work dominates the conversation, organizations have realized that an intentional focus on mental health is no longer optional. If organizations believe that employees lend a competitive advantage, it is time to move beyond office gyms, wellness rooms, and basic Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). It is time to take things up multiple notches by putting in place both preemptive and curative measures. So, let’s jump straight into five actions organizations need to invest in right away.
Do we want organizations to be spaces that amplify stress and lead to mental health concerns? If not, it is important to start identifying which pockets of the organization are more prone to stress than the rest. The underlying reasons could be multiple. It could be problematic managers, the nature of a few roles, demands from certain functions, or just the level of customer interaction. The one size fits all approach is optimistic yet not the most effective. Unless an organization knows which pockets are more problematic than the rest, it is close to impossible to fix. Sick leave utilization, vacation day use, EAP utilization, and targeted surveys can help identify the hotspots. Once you know them, customized solutions can be put in place. Coaching for problematic managers, redesigning job roles, resetting expectations are just a few of the many solutions that can be undertaken once one knows the root cause.
Irrespective of whether they fall into the hotspots or not, every single manager needs to know that mental health is just as important as physical wellbeing for the team to deliver successfully. We do not want our managers to turn into therapists but be able to comfortably discuss mental health with employees and point them to the offerings that the organization provides. I have come across innumerable managers who either dismiss mental wellbeing as an artificial problem or are uncomfortable talking about it. Managers need to actively advocate for mental health in team meetings, all hands, and other forums; and employees need to get comfortable telling their managers that they are not ok and would like to take time off or take things slow. Managers need to skillfully deal with these requests and proactively recognize when they might be contributing to creating a stressful environment. Most often burnout rate is a direct outcome of the managerial style.
As organizations begin to redesign workspaces to abide by social distancing norms, it is an opportunity to design in nudges to reduce stress and promote mental wellbeing. Natural light, greenery, and art make for calming environments. One can also explore incorporating quiet rooms, breakout spaces with Play-Doh (Yes, they’re good for adults too), adult coloring books, and hobby spots. Utilize wall space in the form of art and posters to indicate that while productivity is king, breaks often do lead to creative sparks. Encourage employees to draw their eyes away from screens to calming visuals. If given the creative license, explore sounds that lead to a calmer state of mind e.g. indoor waterfalls. The opportunities are endless.
This is one of my favorite recommendations. As we cross 100 days of being in lockdown, I have been encouraging managers more than ever to let their team members take time off just to tend to their mental wellbeing. One could wake up in the morning feeling like they don’t have it in them to work today. Dragging themselves into work only makes it worse. A single day off can be the difference between feeling a lot better and a lot worse. Managers need to realize that sick days are not just for when one is physically unwell. It applies to the mind too. If organizations need to make it explicit by putting aside exclusive days for wellness time off, so be it. Do what it takes.
Employee assistance programs are extremely helpful. However, there are two downsides to this. In India especially, seeking help comes with a taboo attached to it. It gets tougher when putting into the organizational context. No employee is comfortable seeking a counselor in fear that the organization may misinterpret it as incapability to perform job responsibilities and fear of perception in the minds of colleagues. Hence utilization stays low. The other aspect is that organizations either support only a few free sessions or cover a very small percentage of the cost. Let’s face it. Therapists are expensive and unless organizations increase the contribution, they are willing to make and actively socialize the benefits, it is never going to hit peak effectiveness. Also, organizations need to explore other benefits that can be provided to employees. This can be in the form of care packages or free subscriptions to wellness and mindfulness apps such as Calm and Headspace. Either way, EAP is no longer enough.
The focus on mental wellbeing is not new. Organizations have known for years that creating a stressful environment is a recipe for disaster, but it has always been individual prerogative. Knowing has never been enough. If there was ever a time to turn knowledge to swift action, it is now. Mental wellbeing is the new age competitive advantage. It is one organization that cannot afford to lose out on.
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