To commemorate Mental Health Awareness Month, Alley’s CEO Noelle Tassey spoke with Kelly Greenwood, Founder and CEO of Mind Share Partners, alongside Moses Balian, A certified HR consultant at Just Works, on how they approach mental health in relation to leading a team.
Mind Share Partners is a national nonprofit focused on driving culture change around workplace mental health, and Just Works is a New York City-based software company that provides HR and compliance support.
During our conversation with Kelly and Moses, we covered a range of topics that are relevant to so many companies today like how can you destigmatize mental health in the workplace, how can leaders share with teams while also maintaining a professional boundary, and how can you best support employees battling with mental health—but first, we asked them what exactly mental health means to them.
Defining Mental Health at Work
To this question, both of our panelists drew a parallel between mental and physical health.
Creating space for mental health in the workplace can look a few different ways. For instance, Kelly said to her it means being able to discuss mental health the same way we’d talk about physical health—by having the ability to talk about therapy with the same validity and security we have when discussing a doctor’s visit.
Moses agreed, pointing out that creating space for mental health in the workplace is a necessary form of inclusion—ideally, employees should feel just as empowered approaching HR for any necessary accommodations for mental health conditions as they would for something like a broken arm, or carpal tunnel.
From there, we segued into some of the ways that employers can help facilitate an open dialogue about mental health in the workplace.
Starting a Dialogue
To Moses’ point of mental health being a matter of inclusion, it’s also a matter of bringing one’s whole self to work.
Ultimately, employees won’t feel comfortable making that jump unless leadership sets an example—the destigmatization of mental health in the workplace has to start at the top.
Mindshare conducted a study that found C-suite executives are just as likely as entry-level folks to experience mental health symptoms—if employees can see that members of leadership struggle with mental health too, it opens up the door for them to communicate about any issues they're facing.
Kelly and Moses shared some tips for employers looking to start that dialogue about mental health in the workplace:
- Lead by example: If leaders feel comfortable doing so, sharing personal experiences with mental health can go a long way. It’s comforting for employees to see that their leaders can struggle with the same challenges, making it easier for them to start that conversation.
- Team Check-ins: Especially with the current state of affairs, team check-ins are essential. It’s easy for individuals to feel uncomfortable sharing in large groups, so leaders should consider sharing first to help others feel comfortable doing the same. At the same time, it’s equally as important to remember that some people may not feel comfortable sharing at all, and that’s okay.
- Self Care: Again, higher ups need to lead by example and take care of themselves—that means getting rest, being vulnerable, asking for help, and not overworking themselves. This way, employees will feel empowered to do the same for themselves.
- Practice Vulnerability: Brené Brown, a champion of mental health, reminds us that being vulnerable is not a weakness, but actually a way of demonstrating strength, because we’re taking ownership of our own weaknesses and strengths alike.
How Much is Too Much?
Being vulnerable is scary—if it wasn’t, we’d all be doing it!
From a leadership perspective, some leaders are afraid if they’re too vulnerable, their teams might look at them differently.
To some extent, that could be true. Employees might see their leaders differently for showing a more vulnerable side of themselves—but maybe that’s not a bad thing. They might even respect their leaders in a way they didn’t before, being able to relate to whatever issues they’ve opened up about.
The upside to leaders introducing conversations about mental health is that they can do it at a pace they feel comfortable with. But the question then becomes, what about those who aren’t comfortable with vulnerability in the workplace at all? What about employees who routinely leave emotion at the door, trying to keep their work and personal lives totally separate?
In cases where members of the team are uncomfortable with their peers discussing matters of mental health at work, our panelists recommended that leaders try to keep the more vulnerable conversations offline, or in a one-on-one setting. It’s important to make it clear that anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable participating in larger conversations about mental health at work certainly doesn’t have to.
However, it is important to remember that we’re evolving as a society, and having these conversations is becoming part of creating an inclusive workplace culture.
As Moses put it, “business has an opportunity right now to be on the forefront of social change, because it's an apolitical collaborative environment where we set aside any sort of ideological warfare and instead just focus on how do we move forward together productively, collaboratively and inclusively.”
Also, our panelists reminded us that conversations about mental health in the workplace are of even greater importance during this crisis.
Handle With Care
Kelly reminded us that one silver lining to the current situation is that in many ways, it’s normalized people's challenges and realities as they relate to work.
Everyone is affected by this crisis, and ultimately, that makes it easier to start a dialogue with folks about what feelings are coming up, how they can interfere with productivity, paving way for future conversations surrounding mental health.
Noelle asked our panelists how they think employers can support their teams during this crisis, here are some of the takeaways:
- Adapt: rather than trying to force control onto uncontrollable circumstances, it’s important for leaders to acknowledge the current reality of things and contextualize the narrative within the parameters of reality.
- Be Authentic: Getting laid off or taking a paycut has been a reality for many of us. It’s important that leaders give employees the credit to understand why this decision was made, to help them understand that it’s not personal, and ultimately give them some peace of mind.
- Model Healthy Habits: Like Kelly said earlier, it’s important that leaders avoid working around the clock, that they take time off when they need to, and try being honest with employees if they’re experiencing stress or anxiety. Ultimately, this sets an example for teams to take care of themselves, too.
- Ask: It’s also important that leaders not assume what people need, and instead ask folks how they're doing, what they need, and try to be as flexible as possible. Sometimes this means offering PTO, flexible hours, or anything that helps employees stay on top of their mental health as well as their workload.
In addition to supporting employees through the crisis, we also have to think about how to handle layoffs with the care, too.
We asked Kelly and Moses how they think employers can make sure that they are handling any sort of staffing reductions responsibly, carefully, with compassion, with humanity, with integrity.
They had a few words of advice:
- Have an honest conversation: Be fully transparent, and give employees the credit to understand the decision-making.
- Do not make promises: it's all about contextualizing the narrative in the sense of what is and isn't controllable—we have no idea how things will unfold, so avoid making any promises to employees that you perhaps can’t deliver on.
- Human-to-human dialogues: Remember that we are all human, and being laid off is painful for anyone. Try having conversations with employees to validate their concerns, asking them what they need, even if you can't give them all of it, it’s crucial to helping them feel heard throughout this time.
For the staff that employers are able to retain, now is the time to consider what sort of accommodations you can offer to help them feel supported at work.
Accommodations & Expectations
During the panel, a member of the audience asked how to approach employees who have more perennial issues—should the employer be expected to continue making accommodations?
Moses let us know that from an HR compliance standpoint, if any employee is presenting symptoms of depression or another mental health condition that interferes with their ability to fulfill their job description, an employer can ask for medical substantiation.
Of course, this should be done with care and empathy, but once an MD provides documentation that lays out exactly what about the role the employee can and cannot fulfill, it's appropriately named a reasonable accommodation.
Kelly also reminded us that some accommodations can be avoided if the employer gets in front of the issue—offering flexibility from the start goes a long way. That can look a lot of ways, but one example could be offering one work-from-home day, or flexible hours, so members of the team can see a therapist or counselor routinely, taking into consideration the challenge of seeing a mental health profession outside the 9:00-6:00 pm parameters.
In instances where one member of the team is given an accommodation—maybe in the form of adjusted hours, reduced hours, or a lightened workload—it’s possible that this can affect morale among employees who have to pick up any work left over.
To this, our panelists recommend filling any staffing gap to the extent that you can—try handing off any remaining work to a part-time hire, a temp hire, or redistribute work in such a way that feels equitable.
Training & Employee Resources
Lastly, we asked Kelly and Moses to share any resources they know of to better equip leadership with the skills needed to properly approach mental health in the workplace.
Moses let us know about a platform called First Aid, a training session aimed at providing practices geared towards helping individuals recognize the early signs and symptoms of mental health conditions, how to listen without judgement, and respond to help someone in distress until they can get the professional care they may need. The training is free and available for all New Yorkers as part of the City’s ThriveNYC Initiative.
Kelly mentioned that at Mindshare Partners, they provide a training for all management and executive teams to provide them with tools to have those vulnerable conversations with their teams, how to normalize and destigmatize mental health in the workplace, and then how to create a plan with the employee alongside HR to help them move forward with professional resources.
Additionally, both of these companies have client and employee resources geared towards supporting teams and building a strong workplace culture inclusive of mental health.
- Mindshare Partners offers a virtual institute for employees to attend, during which they can become a mental health champion and spread that knowledge throughout their own organization.
- Justworks offers an employee assistance program which includes 24/7 access to confidential counseling services for mental health needs, unlimited calls to the Health Advocate hotline and up to three in-person sessions with a local counselor at no cost.