The New “Discussability” of Mental Health: Applications to Organizational Life

Athletes have brought the issue of mental health to the forefront of a national discussion. Superstars in their respective sports including Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and Michael Phelps have courageously voiced what other athletes have increasingly openly acknowledged – how they have battled with mental health issues during their athletic careers. Such high-profile expressions of mental health challenges have helped destigmatize issues of mental health for everyone. That is, they have made raising the personal and collective issue of mental health more discussable.

What are the applications of this newfound openness to discussing mental health issues within the context of organizational life? Most of us live in organizations for at least eight hours a day, five days a week. For many it’s a lot more time than that. Often, especially prior to the remote work necessities brought on by COVID, we saw our co-workers as much if not more than our families. Certainly, the workplace setting must have something to do with mental health. And it does. The themes expressed by athletes apply to organizations across different levels from executives and managers to individual contributors.

“Stress” is a common word individuals use to express their psychological response to work. It’s a safer word than “anxiety” or “depression,” in part because it’s an accepted aspect of the work experience. We all know that work can be stressful. It’s also a more neutral word. Stress, as psychologists tell us, isn’t always bad. Some of it reflects the “ambition” of wanting to succeed at certain tasks or achieve certain goals. It’s only when stress results in an inability to cope with the external demands these goals require that it becomes “distress” that can manifest itself into other mental health issues. I suspect many employees, at all levels, use the word stress to feel psychologically safer in discussing what are really feelings of distress.

As a coach to senior executives for over 20 years I note several parallels between what both my clients and athletes describe. A pressure to perform and succeed despite factors that remain out of their control. A reduced sense of self-esteem when things aren’t going right. Frustration with the overwhelming time commitment that comes with meeting high expectations, often at the cost of personal relationships and fuller lives outside the workplace. The emotional toll of fearing “failure” coupled with any accompanying potential financial implications. Experiencing the “burnout” from the intensity of work demands coupled with their duration. Surrounding all these issues is the sense of loneliness that emerges when the individual feels isolated by place or position, lacking others with whom they can share their feelings.

Complicating matters further as we navigate living through 18 plus months of the COVID-19 pandemic is the complete disruption of personal connections as social lives and, along with it, the work context was overturned. In addition to obvious issues brought on by the crisis, there is the parallel sense of uncertainty it has brought us for life going forward. Even as we readied ourselves for a return to the office (which depending on the person could engender relief or anxiety or some combination of both), the rise in COVID cases despite the availability of vaccines showed us that we were not back to normal just yet.

So, what do we do to improve mental health in the workplace? Organizationally, there are the obvious safeguards in place within many organizations like employee assistance programs. Increasingly, organizations are offering formal stress reduction programs like yoga and mindfulness, as well as access to fitness classes or gym memberships. But they need to do more than that. We know there is a pressure in all organizations to achieve “bottom line” results, but most couple that with an expression of respect and concern about the welfare of their employees. Mental health is also not an antithesis to organizational productivity – its promotion can support an engaged, vibrant, and loyal workforce. Organizations that embrace these sentiments authentically need to make an honest assessment about whether their work culture is truly in alignment. That includes setting realistic expectations on work related tasks by providing adequate staffing and resources. Organizations can better appreciate boundaries on work time understanding and respecting the value of “time off’ for employees and even executives. This includes respecting, absent “emergencies,” evenings, weekends, and especially vacations, even as the ever-expanding impact of technology is making 24/7 access to managers easier and commonplace.

Offering greater flexibility is potentially another avenue for better mental health. One of the slivers of a silver lining for many employees over the past 18 months has been the flexibility of working from home, in part because of its elimination of long and often unproductive commutes. Understandably, working from home isn’t right and can’t be right for everyone; some jobs require meeting in a workplace with customers or clients. Additionally, personalities are different. Some have found the lack of in-person work interactions somewhat isolating, or prefer a natural and concrete break between their home and work lives. Many employees report having worked longer, not shorter, hours from home. Younger employees, especially, often miss the comradery and social outlet that organizational life can afford. CEOs and senior managers worry about the impact of virtual work within a culture. However, working from home is also not an all or nothing proposition-home and office hybrid models are being used effectively. Moreover, the ideal working situation and accordingly what flexibility may look like is different for different people. The bigger point is that over the last 18 months we’ve learned that some flexibility, in some form, is often possible, without necessarily damaging business results. In balancing employee mental health with business effectiveness, it is worth considering and experimenting with different working arrangements.

Of course, it’s also prudent to be realistic about what organizations can and will do to further employee mental health, especially if it’s seen or imagined to be a threat to or having a negative effect on, business results. In addition to the courage in speaking out, athletes like Simone Biles showed that it is critical to take the matter into their own hands. That includes focusing on one’s own needs for mental health and taking decisive action to incorporate steps proven to support it (e.g., exercise, meditation, diet, etc.). It’s ultimately up to the individuals to incorporate healthy practices into their lives even when the demands of workplace stress and pressures often send us in the opposite direction. For many executives, managers, and other “exempt” employees that may extend to defining personal boundaries for what constitutes reasonable work demands within an organizational culture. For all employees, where possible, that may mean finding the right and maybe different work culture for them. None of this is a panacea. However, as executives attend to their own needs in recognizing the organizational conditions and actions that can foster both their own mental health organizational engagement, and work productivity, they can also consider the broader changes to organizational life that can do the same for all employees.

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