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Whose Mental Health are We Talking About?

For the last few months, the topic of mental health has been up front and center in the media. It’s a tricky one because it’s an issue that is obvious when it’s in the extreme, with the pendulum swinging either direction, but not so clear when it sits squarely in the middle.

Yet, that’s exactly where most of us land. We may not even notice that we are teetering on the balance beam doing our best to keep our footing lest we land with a thud. And though we don’t think twice about going to a medical doctor when our health is flagging, we may resist seeking help from a mental health professional. After all, we’ve been raised to be tough and to handle our emotions. Things will get better. But what if they don’t?

The world is an unsettling place right now. Sometimes I think we all have some version of PTSD, but the truth is, there is nothing “post” about what is going on as we daily face economic market uncertainty, safety issues for our children and continued health hazards. We bring our emotions into our personal relationships, and we bring them into work each day.

Often, we think we are masking our sadness and uncertainty as we search for the new normal. Legally, our employers can’t ask us about our mental health, and we don’t want to appear less fit to work than others by talking about it. Cultural stigma (race, ethnicity, gender etc.) can impact our views on asking for help as well. It affects whether we ask for help at all, the type of help we may ask for and what kind of support we need to assist us.

So, what’s a company to do in addition to adding more mental health programs to the list of benefits provided? Many tend to view mental health as an individual issue. But face it, individuals make up your work force so let’s start with … what is the mental health of your company?

The emotional wellbeing of our workforce is affected by individual culture and by corporate culture. You can’t address one without addressing the other. Yet so often, we slap the proverbial Band-Aid on and say we have addressed an issue without even looking at the root of the problem. And … the company may very well be the root cause of an issue, or at least one of them.

Many employers have responded to the rising topic of mental health with initiatives like flexible work schedules including mental health days. Some have enhanced their counseling benefits. Others are focused on physical wellbeing and meditation practices. But it’s not enough to simply offer the latest apps or employ euphemisms like “well-being” or “mental fitness.” Employers must connect what they say to their actions.

Do you have open and empathetic communication lines with individual employees, so you are clear about the issues they are facing? How do you respond to those issues? Do you have sustainable work hours and fair pay? Are your leaders modeling healthy and respectful relationships? Is your corporate culture a happy one that offers interesting work and fellowship even when work can be isolating for remote employees? Do your employees feel safe when they are at the office? Have you established peer support networks to keep a more emotionally grounded workforce?

I always go back to a “trickle up” approach when looking at corporate cultures. Rather than pushing solutions down on our employees why not include them in the process of designing solutions? Consider convening employees of all levels in focus groups and identifying themes and terms that resonate with the employee population. I recently read about a company that found that the term “resilience” was more effective than “emotional well-being” or “mental health” within their largely male population. With that information they were able to offer discussions and other opportunities around the term resilience with higher participation rates and impressive results including the reduction of employee depression by 10%.

As a company, you may be actively doing everything you can to diversify your workforce responding to market demands. After all DEI is the big push right now. But have you adjusted the programs offered to your employees to consider the different populations within your workforce? Or do you have a standard one size fits all program that fails to address specific cultural factors and needs?

Ultimately, every business, and its management team, needs to ask itself whether it has a mentally healthy culture or whether it is applying quick fixes to individual problems because a deeper dive into the corporate culture might be daunting. If employees can’t find what they need to preserve their own emotional well-being, they will simply quit. After all, survival trumps loyalty.

So, my question is, has this big push for mental health “programs” masked some of the bigger issues and once again made it “them” versus “us”?

Copyright © 2022

All rights reserved – Linda Lattimore


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