When Work is Total Mayhem

5 practices that can make or break employees and organizations

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It’s the third phone call in one day in which the senior leader candidly asks, “How do we maintain a culture of well-being and not sacrifice productivity?”

There are at least a dozen messages in my inbox with headlines like “tragic employee death,” “request for immediate keynote on burnout,” and “mental health expertise needed ASAP.” They are coming from all sectors: government, non-profits, higher education, and Fortune 500s. Frantic leaders are all asking the same questions and reporting the same dire levels of carnage and chaos, desperate to crack the code on helping employees stay and do well.

The anonymous chat Q&As on most of my Zoom resilience webinars are chock-full of comments like: “Work is a total s—show!”; “No one’s stopped and asked how I’m doing”; and “They expect us to go on like everything’s normal when it’s not….”

Unfortunately, these are not new stories to me. Burnout prevention has been part of my teaching, clinical, and consulting practice since long before the current crisis. Organizations have struggled to keep up with the realities and demands of the modern hyper-competitive global market, all while not making people feel like they’re cogs.

Many organizations were sitting ducks pre-pandemic, even despite warnings from the World Health Organization, which boldly reclassified burnout as a condition of the modern workplace and not an individual health condition. The volatile market, coupled with a relentless mindset of 24-7 work, was already setting us up for disaster before COVID reared its ugly head.

And while this all feels grim, research shows that we can move to a better place. That resilience is possible, even during impossible times. That workplaces can become more intentional about providing the structure, policies, and practices that bring out the best instead of causing added harm to people.

Here are some markers of healthy mental health cultures:

1. They demonstrate a commitment to building a culture of trust

Research shows that high-trust cultures breed a stronger sense of psychological safety, which can help employees feel seen and heard and more apt to stay engaged.

2. They have burned the old mental health playbook

Gone are the days when we view struggling as a sign of weakness or personal failing. Organizations that adopt a “human condition” approach to well-being, one that acknowledges we all universally suffer and run the risk of burnout, instead of a stigmatized “mental health condition” approach that shames or pathologizes people are more likely to recognize the value of creating a through-line of caring and access to resources, rather than “othering” those who are struggling or pretending as if mental health isn’t affecting all of us in some shape or form.

3. They creatively foster a sense of belonging

Let’s face it, working remotely is a major obstacle to feeling seen and connected. Whether by humor, incentives, coffee hours, note writing, special shoutouts, trivia, polls, or other creative initiatives, healthy mental health cultures work to bring in playfulness and fun versus being 100 percent tactical and task-oriented. Taking mini-moments to build relationships can be highly beneficial to fostering camaraderie and generating much-needed energy during such draining times.

Don’t assume you already know what employees need or want. Ask them. Questions like, “What would make you feel like you belong and matter here?” and “What would make work more rewarding and energizing?” can go a long way in showing people you’re invested in them.

4. They offer flexibility and don’t micromanage

This connects back to building a culture of trust. Mentally healthy organizations give employees the benefit of the doubt and trust that they can self-regulate and get their work done efficiently without demanding precise timing or methods that are overly rigid or prescriptive. Trusting talent and offering flexibility can lead to higher job satisfaction, engagement, and motivation for employees.

5. They avoid doublespeak

Employees see right through “wellness programming” that talks a good game but then can’t be implemented realistically. Harsh cultures that offer token programming will be sniffed out in .002 seconds by employees. Ensure that initiatives align with organizational values, policies, and practices and work to create a through-line of caring that carries over beyond structured programs, showing people they matter and their mental health is important.

Environments that strive for rigor and excellence mustn’t see caring for people as contradictory to achieving success. Today’s intense conditions require employers to see people as people and provide the right resources, practices, and policies to help them stay and do well.

References

Lee, K. (2018). Mentalligence: A New Psychology of Thinking: Learn what it takes to be more agile, mindful and connected in today’s world. Deerfield Beach: HCI Communications.

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