Diana Hendel, Pharm.D., and Mark Goulston, M.D., are the authors of “Trauma to Triumph: A Roadmap for Leading Through Disruption and Thriving on the Other Side” and “Why Cope When You Can Heal?: How Healthcare Heroes of COVID-19 Can Recover from PTSD.” Hendel is an executive coach, leadership consultant and former hospital CEO. Goulston is a board-certified psychiatrist, former assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA-NPI, and a former FBI and police hostage negotiation trainer.
When Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open after refusing to speak to the media, she did it to protect her mental health. She may also have struck a blow on behalf of all who feel the need to downplay or even hide our depression, anxiety, grief, and other issues in the interest of meeting work obligations.
Osaka’s courage in speaking up on this issue is a huge step forward in helping break down the stigma surrounding mental health issues. It has inspired a lot of others to tell their own stories. Leaders need to take note.
While mental health issues have always been a concern in the workplace, the widespread stress, distress and trauma caused by COVID-19 have forced leaders to zero in on the subject. There’s a new realization that, in an era of uncertainty and volatility, we need to not only prepare for future crises, but also bring psychological well-being out of the closet.
Everyone won’t be as brave as Osaka, which is why leaders need to get intentional about destigmatizing mental health issues. If we don’t, people will be afraid to acknowledge they are struggling. They’ll just push through and just move on. This will cause bigger problems down the road. It’s not good for employees or for your company.
A few tips:
If you have an EAP, make sure people feel comfortable accessing it. An employee assistance program (EAP) helps employees with issues that affect their health and mental and emotional well-being. If your organization has an EAP, make sure that people know the services it offers, and that they can access those services confidentially. Further reinforce the message that there is no shame in using an EAP. And if your organization does not currently have an EAP, consider setting one up now.
Talk up the subject of mental health. Don’t assume people “just know” you care about this issue. They probably don’t. Say the words “I want you to be mentally and emotionally healthy. Please come to me if you need help. My door is always open.” And don’t just say it once. Say it, announce it, write it, and reinforce it over and over.
Regularly meet with employees one-on-one so you’re more likely to be aware of their personal struggles. This is a good leadership practice anyway, as it builds strong connections between leaders and employees. But especially in tumultuous times like now, it helps you know if they’re grieving a loss or their spouse has lost a job, or their child is struggling in school. The better you know your employees, the more likely you’ll be to intervene when they need it.
Be aware of the signals you’re sending. People need to feel psychologically safe to tell the truth. It’s crucial for leaders to allow people to feel their emotions and to talk about it when they are having a tough time. Pay attention to the signals you’re sending. Never penalize people, overtly or subtly, for bringing their secret struggles into the light. Never imply that this is a sign of “weakness” or that they are finding a reason to shirk their duties. And if you think you’d never do this, know that it’s possible to subconsciously push people away through stigmatizing them.
We often stigmatize others because sometimes what others are going through hits too close to home about our own mental and emotional issues. It seems that most of the world copes with anxiety and depression — as opposed to healing from it — by trying to run away from it by keeping busy. Hearing about someone else’s issues can get in the way of our being able to run from ours.
Show your own vulnerability. It is OK to admit that you too are afraid, stressed and exhausted at times. In fact, being vulnerable with your own feelings frees others to do the same. Not only does this level of transparency normalize conversations about mental health, it also helps you to be seen and heard, which supports your own mental health. Remember, leaders are also human!
Model empathy for others’ experiences. The ability to show empathy truly is one of the most powerful leadership skills. Not only should you listen to people’s experiences, you must let them know that you really care and feel for them. Further, let it be known that the organization will not tolerate the teasing or bullying of those who are visibly struggling to carry on. That is the opposite of empathy. Put a stop to any and all criticism or gossip immediately.
Handle workplace shake-ups carefully. When a crisis, disruption or trauma happens at work, how leaders respond really matters. COVID is an obvious example, but in a chaotic world, all sorts of disruptive events can — and eventually will — happen. These events can exacerbate mental health issues, which is why leaders must approach them the right way. For example: It’s impossible to communicate too much. When leaders acknowledge and speak about what is happening during a crisis — particularly the bad stuff — employees feel safer to speak up, ask questions, and make their needs known.
Fear, stress and anxiety ARE the elephants in the room. Address them head-on. We often think if we talk about stress, fear, or anxiety, that we’ll dwell on it and make it worse. The opposite is often true — being able to express feelings and speak about fears in a psychologically safe environment leads to less isolation, which can be detrimental to our well-being.
Cut out the pithy platitudes or superficial pep talks. Workers’ fears and anxieties must be acknowledged as real and understandable. They don’t need to be told to “get over it” or “buck up.” Their feelings are not unfounded or delusional.
Make sure you are always listening. When we’re under great stress, it can be very difficult for any of us — particularly leaders — to hear the angst, pain, resistance and sometimes anger of others, or to have it directed at us. But bearing witness to others’ feelings is often what is most needed during and in the aftermath of a traumatic episode.
Offer a peer-to-peer support group. Group work can greatly benefit health care workers, especially those who have encountered traumatic experiences together. When groups share similar suppressed and repressed thoughts and feelings during, and following, a trauma, they are immersed in the bonding hormone oxytocin, which is associated with emotional connectedness and emotional safety. If your organization does not already have a formal support group, consider forming one now. They can meet once or twice a week for sessions in person or even by video conference.
Emphasize self-care. Talk openly to employees about how to keep stress and pay, and practice, the basics of self-care. At first glance, practices like getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and so forth may seem overly simple or self-evident. However, they’re more important than most realize in keeping us mentally, emotionally and, of course, physically healthy. The more you talk about such matters, the more it will dawn on employees that you care about their well-being.
None of this is over the top. Many people feel mental health issues are the next big epidemic people will face. It is a leader’s place to get involved and try to neutralize the problem before it really takes root in the organization. Making 100% sure people aren’t afraid to raise the alarm is the first crucial step. I&FMM.