Prioritizing mental wellness at the workplace is good for business
Elaine Dutton
April 11, 2022

It was a pleasure to be part of the Mental Wellness at the Workplace Conference held in Malta on Tuesday 5th April, 2022. I contributed to the panel titled “Prioritizing Employee Mental Health Is The Right Thing To Do, And It’s Good For Business.” I believe wholeheartedly in this message and there have been so many great examples in my career to date that have consolidated this belief. I continued to reflect on the message of the conference for several days after and wished to share some thoughts.

I find that at times we think of Employee Mental Wellness as being on the lookout for mental illness – making sure we know what to do in case of a crisis or if someone is exhibiting distressful symptoms. This is of course all very important. However, Mental Wellness at the workplace goes beyond this. In my experience, it requires a total commitment from the topmost members of the organizational hierarchy, to acknowledge and prioritize the holistic wellbeing of their employees and ensure this philosophy is a pillar of the Company’s culture. Whilst numerous organizations profess that their employees are their best asset, this has become a cliché, and few put it into practice in every sphere that concerns their employees.

So how does one go about acknowledging and prioritizing employee wellbeing?

I think first and foremost one needs to recognize that employees bring their whole selves to work – they don’t just bring their knowledge or the experience in their CV. They come with their collection of personality traits, family backgrounds, cultural norms and personal expectations. Therefore, it requires a commitment from the organization to acknowledge and respect the individual realities that employees contend with daily, and offer them a safe space within which to do their best work every day.

This means that employees can turn up at work (whether physically or remotely) and don’t have to worry about anything other but to give their best. They don’t have to wear ‘a mask’ while interacting with colleagues because of a fear that their values or their lifestyle would be rejected. They don’t have to wonder if people will sneer at them when they leave on time. They don’t have to rehearse their excuses for not being able to stay beyond 6pm for a strategy meeting, because no reasons are necessary when an organization understands that employees have lives outside of work. In such organizations, employees can ask for support and admit to feeling anxious when they are asked to lead a project for the first time. They can get coaching to be more effective leaders, because their technical expertise does not lie in managing people. They can give constructive feedback about their manager without fear of recrimination. They can be honest that the role is becoming too big to handle alone and that the speed of the Company’s growth is dizzying. They can talk openly about their levels of stress and how they are coping (or not coping) with it. They can be honest about their plans to have a family – irrespective of their gender. They can be open that they are struggling in their marriage and that they are going for counselling. They can offer suggestions during a team meeting without fear of ridicule or someone judging their idea as ‘too outlandish’. The list goes on, but I think you get my drift.

The reason it makes complete business sense for organizations to prioritize employees’ holistic wellbeing, is that by providing workplaces that are psychologically safe and respecting employees for the individuals they are, employees repay its value in loyalty, talent retention, higher team moral and higher productivity. All too often those outlandish ideas are what lead to product innovation. The anxious first-time leader becomes a strong people manager who learns to coach junior employees. The employees that can be honest about their difficulties find that there is increased trust with their teams, and they work far more effectively together. The employees that can drop their mask with their team can spend time focusing on finding solutions together rather than using energy unproductively. The top performing employees who keep getting approached by the competition recognize the benefit of working for a Company that trusts and values them, and choose to stay on board. Research (and two years of living through a pandemic) have shows us that employees who enjoy trust from their leaders and work for organizations that truly embrace work-life balance, typically report higher job satisfaction and engagement. In most cases, employees actually give more when they feel that their personal dimension is being respected and facilitated. Therefore, prioritizing employee mental health is much less about ticking off boxes of having policies in place or looking for symptoms and much more about building a work culture that ensures our workplaces are allowing us to give our best.

But where do you draw the line, between being sensitive to mental health versus being critical of performance?

This was a question that was put forward by a member of the audience during the conference. And I can understand the confusion. It seems that at times we dichotomize being human and conscious of employee well being from the need to ensure that we hit targets and contribute to the bottom line. But this is the issue – there is no dichotomy.

I think it is important to clarify that being a high-performing, results-driven organization does not preclude it from being compassionate and seeing employees as human beings. Equally, being compassionate and prioritizing mental health, does not mean that we shelter employees from feedback that is important for them to grow, and to understand how their performance links with the overall results of the organization.

A high-performing organization hinges on performance feedback being given consistently, clearly and constructively. Giving honest, candid feedback to an employee about their performance is necessary, but to cite Kim Scott, author of ‘Radical Candor’ – “it’s important to give a damn”. Therefore, an organization that is aiming at being both performance-driven but also cognizant of mental wellness, would train its leaders to phrase feedback in a manner that drives the point across in an honest and respectful manner without it destroying the person’s confidence. Scott also refers to ‘ruinous empathy’ to refer to those situations where leaders shy away from giving employees the candid facts that point at their inefficiencies, potentially scared that they would be hurting their feelings. In this case, the empathy is ruinous because it helps neither the employee nor the organization. If leaders skirt around the truth in the name of employee wellness, it is typically their own discomfort with having difficult conversations that they need to face. It is this inadequate level of leadership which would be at the true cause of hindered Company performance and not the philosophy of prioritizing employee wellness.

Therefore, organizations do not need to choose between being results driven and prioritizing employees’ holistic wellbeing. On the contrary, there is abundant evidence that recognizing and enabling employees’ wellbeing and offering workspaces that are conducive to doing one’s best work is what leads to higher performing teams and increased organizational success.

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