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Nurturing Mental Health in the Workplace

As we navigate through the aftermath of the pandemic, the need to prioritize mental health in the workplace has become even more evident. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, 70 percent of employees are concerned about the psychological health and safety of their workplace. The Government of Canada defines psychological safety at work as “a respectful and productive environment that makes every reasonable effort to promote and protect the mental health of employees.” Because most adults spend a notable amount of their time at work, workplaces play a crucial role in fostering an environment where employees feel psychologically safe and supported. As leaders, we want to support the well-being of our employees, but how do we approach such a daunting task?

Firstly, it’s critical to understand that every workplace has different needs. What some employees find helpful on a remote team might not necessarily apply to an in-person team. This is why it’s so important for leaders to talk to their employees about what support systems would be most beneficial. While there are standard practices that all leaders can do, no strategy can address the underlying concerns without first considering employee needs. Having open conversations with your team members about their well-being support needs is the first step to creating a psychologically safe environment.

“Forced vulnerability” does more harm than good
Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor and social worker who’s studied vulnerability for over 12 years explains how “vulnerability is about trust, and intimacy, and connection—we share with people who earn the right to hear the story.” It’s important to understand that the existing power dynamic in the workplace can inadvertently cause employees to feel obligated to share information about themselves that they otherwise might not be comfortable doing, even if that isn’t our intention. With mental health already stigmatized in our society, it’s therefore extra important for leaders to create safe spaces where people don’t feel forced to be vulnerable. One simple way is to be mindful of the icebreaker and group activities we initiate. While it’s good to take time for team bonding, these situations can sometimes lead to people sharing beyond what they’re comfortable with, inauthentically sharing, or feeling a need to “out-vulnerable” one another.

Nurturing the mental health of our employees can take various forms as everyone’s support needs differ. For some, this might mean having flexibility in their work hours. For others, it could mean more mental health programming in the workplace. While trying to navigate everyone’s needs can be challenging, here are 7 practical ways you can foster a healthy work environment through a human-centred approach to leadership:

  1. Create a safe space for open discourse
    For leaders, fostering an environment where everyone feels safe sharing their ideas and concerns is imperative to creating a psychologically safe work environment. When employees feel comfortable expressing their thoughts without fear of repercussion or judgement, they are more likely to relay honest feedback to their leader. As human-centred leaders, we should create safe spaces where learning and growth can happen in a judgement-free environment.
  2. Address mental health stigma
    When it comes to destigmatizing mental health, we all have a role to play. As leaders, we should actively challenge misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding mental health. By promoting understanding and empathy, and advocating for employee’s mental health needs, leaders can play a significant role in destigmatizing mental health.
  3. Model positive behaviours
    We all know that the best leaders lead by example. The same is true for human- centred leaders. If we want our team members to know we care about their wellbeing, we need to demonstrate positive behaviours ourselves. When we take time during the workday to make ourselves a cup of tea, go for a nature walk, or practice meditation, we encourage that behaviour in our team.
  4. Lead with compassion and empathy
    Leading with empathy (the ability to feel the emotions someone else experiences) and compassion (recognizing someone’s emotions and wanting to take action) means actively listening to your employee’s concerns, validating their experiences, and offering resources when it’s needed. While we might not always relate to the lived experiences of our team members, we can still demonstrate empathy and compassion and show our team that we genuinely care about their well-being.
  5. Encourage employee decision-making
    Leaders can foster a sense of autonomy by giving their team members the ability to make decisions. Not only does this demonstrate trust but it also empowers employees to be strategic in taking ownership of their work. When team members feel empowered and part of the decision-making process, they are more likely to be motivated and do their best work.
  6. Provide mental health resources
    As a leader, you can encourage your team members to take better care of their mental health by providing them with self-help resources such as stress- management techniques or mindfulness workshops. By investing in your employees’ mental health, leaders can create healthier and more resilient teams.
  7. Forge meaningful relationships
    A sense of belonging is a key aspect of a healthy workplace, according to Harvard Business Review. When employees feel like they belong and that they matter, they can create meaningful relationships with one another and with their leader. As a leader, forge genuine connections with your employees, truly get to know them as a person, and encourage others to do the same.