By Maryam Meddin , founder and CEO of The Soke, a private clinic integrating mental healthcare, wellbeing, support and performance coaching
Issues around job security, concerns about being furloughed or made redundant, isolation and loneliness – these are just some of the challenges that people across the UK have been faced with in 2020. Conversely, those with more job security have reported a sense of burnout and even disillusionment as the always-on culture of working from home has taken its toll.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing these problems in a generalised way, not remembering that the numbers represent individuals lives, emotions and – ultimately – destinies. That, however, is something that we must keep reminding ourselves when we consider the issue of wellbeing and morale.
Last week I was approached by someone who told me that one of his star performers had been making repeated, uncharacteristic errors which were beginning to cost the firm both reputationally and financially. The employee – a big, burly guy not prone to discussing matters of a personal nature openly – was not forthcoming with a reason for his extended period of distraction. The question to me was a simple one: “how can I find out what’s wrong?”
First and foremost, it’s important to say that the frequency with which this question is coming up is enormously encouraging. At The Soke, we’re conscious that employers are increasingly paying close attention to the wellbeing of their individual team members; they want to ensure that they meet their organisational responsibilities and, on a personal level, don’t fall short when it comes to their role as good, supportive leaders. We’re noticing that they are, for the first time, asking about how to be proactive, rather than reactive, in respect of their staff’s psychological wellbeing.
The desire to help aside, my response to the question is: how do you feel about discussing your own mental health at work? Creating an environment in which people, regardless of their position, feel secure about revealing vulnerabilities safe in the knowledge that it will be handled with professionalism and empathy (and won’t be career limiting), is something that shouldn’t be done ‘on the hop’, so to speak. It requires you, as a leader, to develop the right sort of skills, to instil a culture of safety and acceptance and – significantly – to be willing to lead the charge when it comes to being transparent about challenges.
In practical terms, it’s worth establishing a system whereby leaders and team members have one-on-one time in a setting that feels conducive to comfort and openness and is all about discussing how they are, rather than about appraising their performance. For example, with the employee mentioned earlier in this piece – the macho one who clearly feels uncomfortable in a face-to-face conversation about his feelings – I suggested having the talk during a regular car journey. The physical setting of a car, which can be quite intimate without requiring the two people engaged in a conversation to look each other in the eye, seems to be quite the conversational lubricant, (according to parents above all!). I’m not suggesting that all team meetings should be itinerant, just that in this particular case, there was a need for a practical solution that would minimise potential awkwardness. Be prepared, therefore, to think beyond the confines of facing chairs in an office.
Before any of the above takes place, of course, it’s important to establish your response(s) to the sorts of issues that could be aired during these heart-to-hearts. If your employee begins to tell you about their personal problems, are you prepared to provide the follow-up support that may be needed? This doesn’t mean that you, personally, should be braced to be a therapist to all your staff, but that you should at least be willing and able to signpost resources that are suited to help them through the issue or period of difficulty.
Be clear, in your own head and as a matter of company policy, the lengths to which you will go in support of staff. It’s likely to be counter-productive to say to a colleague “tell me what the problem is so I can help you” and then leave them high and dry once they have. By the same token, make sure there is clarity about any red lines before your team open up to you. Whilst you may think that retracting an offer of support as a result of what’s come to light in the one-to-one may be justified, the rest of your team may take it as an indication that your assurance of protection was merely a disingenuous tactic. This, needless to say, is bound to be corrosive where organisational culture is concerned.
As a safety measure against such an outcome, it’s worth engaging everyone ahead of time in a collective conversation about what the lengths and limitations are and being receptive to feedback. Letting people know that your company policies are shaped by their contributions is an excellent means through which to demonstrate your commitment to their welfare and, hopefully, a way through which to strengthen their commitment to you.
With all the concentration on psychological health, it’s worth remembering that physical wellbeing is also relevant to how you care for your staff. I’ve heard of companies providing gift cards for ergonomic work products in order to ensure that their staff can purchase items that would help to make their working environment at home more comfortable. Others have organised virtual classes in which physiotherapists provide guidance on optimal desk & chair set up for those who have turned their bedrooms or dining tables into makeshift offices. Get a gauge of the issues that your people are experiencing and, if it’s feasible, do what you can to alleviate their particular problem. This sort of thing doesn’t just make life easier for them, it also demonstrates the sincerity of your intentions.
Last, but not least: mental health is a sensitive topic and the danger of accidentally stepping on a landmine is ever-present. If you’re serious about looking after your team’s psychological wellbeing, then the starting point is to develop the very specific skills needed to do it sensitively and effectively. There are people out there ready to work with you to get it right – practice what you preach and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Maryam Meddin is founder and CEO of The Soke, a private clinic integrating mental healthcare, wellbeing, support and performance coaching.