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Furlough ≠ Vacation: Why Companies MUST Invest in Mental Health

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Newsflash: workers furloughed at the start of or during the coronavirus shutdown were not on an extended vacationThey are not well-rested, are not recharged, and are not feeling refreshed. They have been living with high levels of worry, anxiety, fear, and depression for months, some even years - worrying about themselves or a family member getting or recovering from COVID-19; worrying about whether they would return to work; worrying about their partner returning to work; worrying about keeping their kids on track as they home-schooled for months; worrying about paying their bills; worrying about the future of their career; worrying about social unrest; worrying about continued discrimination and inequality in our systems; worrying about their physical and psychological safety; worrying about keeping their skills current or staying relevant.

I can speak quite personally and affirmatively about these worries' toll over several months. Workers "fortunate" enough not to have been furloughed were also at high risk of mental health strain, as many essential workers put in long hours, had their pay cut, took on more responsibilities at work as their colleagues were let go, have dealt with survivors guilt, and still had nearly all the same worries and fears as their furloughed friends.

In short, the collective workforce is exhausted and stressed. It is the mental health equivalent of being run down after an extended illness but trying to run a marathon anyway. We aren't prepared to go the distance or go at full speed. As more businesses get back to work and the pace of the economy picks up, executives, HR leaders, and board members must act to protect the mental health of their workforce with the same fervor, commitment, and accountability as they are working to minimize their employee's exposure to the coronavirus. 

This requires a sense of urgency, a new perspective, and a deeper understanding of the impact of mental health on the quality of our contributions at work and the quality of our life in general. A referral to a local counselor from the traditional EAP (Employee Assistance Provider) doesn't go far enough to monitor, manage, and maintain employees' mental health. And while most workplaces are more supportive of an employee openly sharing their battle with cancer, heart disease, and other chronic physical health conditions, discussing and seeking support in the workplace for anxiety, depression, loneliness, despair, and heartbreak are still relatively taboo. Mental health resources, facilities, and coverage for mental health treatment are also lacking. This has to change.

Before I offer some suggestions, I want to clarify a personal position. I don't think that supporting mental health in and via the workplace means creating a stress-free work environment, settling for substandard work performance, or never having critical and challenging conversations. Being uncomfortable and being challenged is vital for professional and personal growth. If you have ever trained for a marathon, done cross-fit, competed in sports, or know someone who has, you learn to get stronger you have to experience discomfort. But as any athlete will tell you, training to the point that discomfort becomes pain and injury and then leaving that unaddressed can wreak long-term havoc on your health and ability to perform. It is the same with our mental fortitude. A certain amount of positive stress can breed creativity, innovation, and growth. Too much stress, or outright harmful and destructive mental strain, left unattended, leads to burnout, chronic poor performance, depression, anxiety, and worse - and it's time to bring this subject into the corporate values set and join it with other, related efforts to enable the whole and well self to thrive at work.

So, if you are a business owner, executive decision-maker, HR leader, or board member - what should you do to support the mental health of your workforce?

  1. Be accountable. Whether you agree with the social, political, and economic shifts that have led us today, the workplace is the dominating social construct and support structure in most people's lives. It is often where we find our friends and social networks, generally where and with whom we spend most of our day, and even in this age of remote work, is the central institution that contributes to personal identity and financial security (we can debate later if work should play this role, but this is generally the case today). And, despite asking for more from employees for decades - more connection, more contribution, more collaboration, more cohesion - many companies still shy away from their responsibility for worker well-being, particularly concerning mental health. It feels too much like a personal problem, not a professional one. It is unique, and employees bring their whole self to work whether you think they should or not, whether you choose to see it, accept it or include it in how you operate. Large companies have executive and board accountability for environmental sustainability, worker physical safety, and cyber security. It's time to foster the same accountability and commitment to employee well-being, including mental health. And by the way, being accountable for worker well being is not separate from our diversity and inclusion initiatives, corporate social responsibility, or employee engagement - it's a conduit and complement to those efforts - as our mental health is directly impacted by whether we feel included, are treated fairly, have meaningful work and can be our authentic self. So step up, own the responsibility, and get engaged in addressing the issue. This is our collective problem to solve, and businesses today, huge companies, while ill-equipped, are well-positioned in influence and importance in people's lives to be an access point for practical solutions.

  2. Inventory what you are doing today to support (or undermine) mental well-being at work. But, don't be surprised when the list of supporting activities is short and superficial. EAP plan? Check. Table stakes, but not enough. Friday chair massages? Check. Visible, nice, but not enough. Mindfulness training? Check. Getting there, but still not enough. What's in your leader training? How are employees onboarded? What tone do you take when discussing stress, pressure, and performance? Is leadership visible, personable, and authentic about their well-being? How do you encourage (or discourage) people to be their authentic selves at work? No, that doesn't mean professionalism goes out the window. It just means recognizing our humanity and allowing us to be more than the work we perform. Do you have programs that foster inclusion and openness? Do people have a best friend at work? Efforts in diversity, inclusion, and engagement often support well-being at work but are not enough. You may offer (or mandate) physical wellness screenings, cholesterol checks, and blood pressure monitoring, but how are you monitoring your employees' mental well being (note: this is different from engagement, performance, and job satisfaction)? Do you even bother to ask, and frequently, with the genuine desire to know how people are doing and with an understanding of what to do with an honest response that someone is struggling? How are you helping people manage and improve their mental health? Do you encourage mindfulness and meditation the same way you encourage daily step tracking, water consumption, and healthy food choices at company events? What are you doing to help people maintain good mental health practices? As with most challenges, an honest assessment of today will identify where you can make the most significant impact tomorrow.

  3. If you are falling short (which you likely are), find a qualified and expert partner to help. Unfortunately, many HR professionals are ill-equipped to design and deploy effective programs to support well-being at work, both physical and mental. The same is valid for diversity and inclusion or engagement efforts, which, as I mentioned above, are facets of recognizing and encouraging our shared and unique humanity. Like social responsibility, safety, and cyber security, building sustainable solutions for mental well-being requires specialized expertise. And, this isn't just HR's responsibility to solve. After all, they are often the last to know and contribute the least to the mental health crises in the workplace, often left to clean up the pieces when someone falls apart. In the last three months, I have seen a flood of outreach from experts on LinkedIn; contact a thought leader you might know, ask for help and engage them to help you make an impact - today. It will pay dividends. An exhausted, stressed, worried, anxious, and fearful workforce is not productive and will not be able to help your business rebound and will not stay with you in the long run.
  4. Be intentional and share your intent. A company I used to work for brought in an awesome consulting group to help formulate a corporate social responsibility strategy and action plan. I was selected to be interviewed as part of the effort but was one of the few people who even knew about it. Nothing was shared publicly. No executive leader took ownership, and the result was a muddled effort no one knew enough about or could get behind, despite a deep desire and the good intentions of leadership to make a more meaningful impact on communities and employees. It's no surprise then that not much changed, and our impact remained more or less the same. So, be intentional and tell your organization and your stakeholders what you are doing, how you want to impact the mental health of your employees, and why. Don't let an excellent mental health support program get wrapped up and lost in the annual benefits open enrollment process. Don't just push out training to managers about detecting the warning signs of stress and then cross it off as an objective achieved. Talk about why mental health is essential to you and your business's success. Share and encourage storytelling. I've had my share of personal struggles that came to work with me and never felt lonelier and less effective than when there was no safe space to share what I was going through. I was afraid for years to admit when I was stressed and needed a break - afraid I would be thoughtless of or have my performance graded poorly, despite being a high achiever. Intentionally create the space and open up the opportunity to talk about mental health and your hopes and aspirations for yourself and your people.
  5. Treat people well, like people. I probably should have put this point first - and in some respects, I wish I didn't have to include it. However, sometimes, and perhaps more now than ever, you must go back to the basics and emphasize the need to treat people with dignity and respect and as human beings, not just human resources. Despite working in the disciple for more than a decade, I still cringe at the term human resources - people are more than a resource to be purchased, consumed, and measured (and no, I don't have a solution for what else to call the necessary, oft-overlooked, under-invested-in and vital work this function performs). Our humanity demands we be seen for more than what we produce, deliver, supply, lead, launch, resolve, introduce, improve or eliminate. It's telling that we demand these action verbs and metrics to differentiate ourselves on our resumes and LinkedIn profiles - after all, outcomes, financials, and metrics are the language of business. But people are what companies are made of. People are what companies exist to serve. And people are not just resources - we don't just act in proscribed ways to become a metric to be visualized on a dashboard. We also cry, laugh, celebrate, fail, fear and hope. We bond, argue, encourage, and struggle. To pretend that we don't, our anxieties and worries, our aspirations and dreams, aren't a part of our work product, don't shape our contributions. Leaders and companies that thoughtfully take mental wellness have created safe spaces for our work products and humanity to co-exist. I would argue that these leaders and companies are naturally more inclusive, open to new ideas, and challenge preconceptions and biases because they enable a space where we can bond and build a better future from the roots of our shared humanity.

In closing, I will be the first to admit my thinking on well-being at work, on bringing your whole self to work, and on having responsibility for the mental health of those I work with - well, it has evolved dramatically over the years. As an ambitious and career-oriented woman, I tried to hide my emotions, struggles, and well-being for fear of being perceived as weak, ill-suited, or incapable of rising to the challenges in the workplace. Calm, cool, and always collected were what I thought was expected and required, what I wanted from others. I remember how bitterly disappointed I was, particularly in myself, when I felt less displayed signs of mental stress at work. As a young people leader, I lacked the willingness to show the grace and compassion people on my team deserved and needed when professional and personal challenges became more than they could handle without help. Several personal tragedies and career-altering challenges changed my view, and I realized I had both a responsibility and the ability to do more for myself and others. I experienced the fullness and satisfaction of connecting more deeply and meaningfully with people at work; easy to do when I brought my whole authentic self and was open to finding shared humanity with others. I realized just how many people struggle with or have family members that work with mental health issues when I felt comfortable enough to share about my own family member's attempted suicide - both the event, the compassion of others, and the relative commonness of this situation came as a complete shock to me. I realized that many people have children, parents, spouses, and friends who struggle with mental health challenges. I learned how slippery the slope was for myself and others around me. And I realized how easy it was to care, think about my team's mental well-being, and contribute to their productivity and performance.

With few resources in communities and a paltry mental health care system in the United States, businesses have an opportunity and a responsibility to make their employees and their organizations more resilient and address a gaping and growing need in society. I can't think of a better time for innovation, investment, and intention than now.

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