two co-workers having a conversation
PHOTO: Mimi Thian

Earlier this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, mental health was high on the agenda. Key influencers such as New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and HRH Prince William, spoke candidly about the importance of addressing mental health and its increasing burden on the workforce.

This resulted in the World Health Organization committing to develop guidelines on mental health in the workplace, to address the actions required to help prevent, manage, and overcome mental health conditions.

The fact that world leaders came together to discuss what has traditionally been a taboo topic, followed by the WHO’s commitment, was a big first step in the right direction. But what can companies do at the organizational level, to support better mental health? And why does it matter?

In the past, the tendency has been to see mental health not only as a burden, but also as the individual’s responsibility. In fact, mental health at work affects everyone and everything. One team member who is suffering can have an impact on their team’s morale and productivity. Several employees who are suffering can have an impact on overall levels of engagement throughout the company, not to mention productivity and impact on the bottom line.

Conversely, the work environment in which people find themselves can also have an impact on their mental health. For example if they are working in an environment where there is little trust, or they do not have psychological safety, it’s unlikely that individuals, teams or companies will thrive as ideas will be inhibited. In extreme situations, it’s possible that individuals might experience feelings such as anxiety, fear or even depression if they are not feeling accomplished in their roles.

Using the Feedback Loop to Support Better Mental Health

How can we use the tools available to us in the workplace, to create better conditions for mental health? Regularly sharing feedback — both positive and constructive —can be one way to do so.

If we think about some of the workforce’s ailments, lack of recognition and lack of clarity are two that have a large impact on people’s levels of engagement and overall job satisfaction. These, in turn, can impact their mental health.

Increasing the amount of feedback as well as the frequency with which it's shared, can help alleviate this. Of course it can be difficult to share feedback, but you can help train the behavior and educate people throughout your company to do so — for example by introducing real-time feedback.

Sharing more feedback should in turn support an increase in honest conversations between colleagues, about what’s working and what’s not, be it on projects, in team dynamics or with specific deliverables. 

Related Article: Make Performance Reviews Tangible and Actionable

Support Feedback Conversations With Psychological Safety

As colleagues have more conversations with one another, this should enable them to start sharing more about their situation, sometimes providing context to why they behaved a certain way. It is in these moments that mental health issues might come up. For example a colleague might be suffering from insomnia due to anxiety, or feeling depressed. Both of these quite possibly impacted their work, which prompted someone to share constructive feedback with them.

In order to ensure people are able to have honest feedback conversations but also share personal issues around mental health, it’s important that psychological safety is strong and in place in your company.

For this to be the case, the relationship between: leadership —> employees; managers —> teams; managers —> direct reports; and peer —> peer needs to be strong. People should be encouraged to have regular one on one conversations with each other, and get to know each other beyond their job description, so they can create a connection.

All of the above will help increase psychological safety, in turn enabling more honest conversations. But remember, psychological safety and trust are not a one-off project. Trust needs to be cultivated and relationships reinforced. Without team leads and individuals making an effort, trust can waver and people may no longer feel safe. HR’s responsibility is to ensure the right mechanisms are in place to support this, and if relevant, to provide regular training to all employees.

Related Article: The Best Collaboration Tool for Your Organization? Trust

To Use the Feedback Loop Effectively, We Need to Practice Self-Compassion

Lastly, a key element to having good feedback conversations is self-compassion. Our fear of feedback stems from us automatically imagining the worst case scenario. The idea of someone having an opinion about work becomes terrifying, causing concern our superiors might perceive our work as poor.

Self-compassion is a way of managing this. Rather than berating yourself for failing, imagine treating yourself as you would a friend who told you a story of professional misfortune. Would you tell them they’d made a silly mistake, or that they could have done better? You would probably show understanding, and help them find a constructive takeaway.

Self-compassion is applying that positive reinforcement to yourself, and not beating yourself up. If we are able to practice self-compassion in our personal and professional lives, we will be less afraid of making mistakes and more comfortable with our limitations. As we increase our self-compassion, the better we will be able to accept feedback.

Related Article: Organizations Need to Cultivate Poets, Not Mushrooms

Employers Can Support Better Mental Health at Work

When it comes to creating a positive work environment for mental health, it doesn’t have to be a daunting task. Start with small steps that ensure employees will feel supported and able to have conversations with one another.

  • Create a culture of feedback, where people regularly give each other input.
  • Support you culture of feedback by creating a psychologically safe environment.
  • Teach people to practice self-compassion.

These three actions will not only support mental health, they should also enable people to improve their performance, creating a more engaged workforce. Mental health is not something that can be dissociated from work life and people’s levels of job satisfaction, so it’s important to address it the best we can.