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As a director it can be hard to know how to protect the mental health of your people when it is such an invisible issue. Throw in an unexpected crisis, such as the recent attack at the Countdown supermarket, trauma faced after a natural disaster, or a fatal accident or suicide at work and you are left wondering whether your health and safety policies and practices are really fit-for-purpose.
As a medical doctor with experience working in emergency departments I have seen firsthand the aftermath of trauma. When individuals are not supported to deal with the trauma in healthy ways, the trauma is unlikely to disappear. Instead it will manifest as chronic pain, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and sleep problems that impede a person's ability to work and interact with others.
Directors need be aware of impacts of trauma events as experts have classified covid-19 as a collective trauma. This means every single organisation globally is dealing with a trauma event that they need to respond to. To put this in context, the last time we had similar trauma event which impacted businesses worldwide was during World War II.
When dealing with trauma a strong protective factor is the ability for an individual to undergo the process of ‘meaning making’. In other words, when interpreting an event we evaluate whether there is any discrepancy in our world view as a result of that event. Our world view ultimately determines our behaviour.
Should the event challenge our world view, this cognitive dissonance is psychologically uncomfortable and requires the individual to readjust their world view in order to reduce the discrepancy. If they are able to successfully adjust then it will lead to personal growth and resilience. However, if they are not successful, it will lead to stress and eventually some will end up developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Grief that is often associated with trauma does not occur only when a loved one passes, but could also be the absence of the comradery that existed when we were all in the office. Part of that ‘meaning making’ an employee will undertake will be informed by what you do as directors and the environment you enable in the workplace.
As directors, when reviewing the workplace environment, you should include the psychosocial support structures that are provided formally and informally to employees.
As a director the two key questions you need to ask are:
There are common responses to trauma and therefore ways in which to model recovery and resilience to resume normal activities. By understanding what the negative coping mechanisms that the majority of your employees utilise, this lends itself as tangible areas for an employer to intervene and provide support for.
For example, negative coping mechanisms to life’s stressors often manifest as increased fatigue from hypervigilance compounded by poor sleep. Or a numbing of emotions and stress reactions through increased alcohol consumption.
Your organisation can then target initiatives to help employees switch to more positive coping behaviours, such as one that promotes healthy sleep hygiene in order to improve an employee’s sleeping pattern. It is then important to track whether those supports are actually working by monitoring the outcome you want to improve. If those supports aren’t working, it will then pay to check whether the supports are targeted to what your people need, rather than assuming what they need.
The mental health stigma that exists means that most employees won’t be providing you or the management team the true picture of how work and other stressors are impacting them.
This makes the problem tricky to address.
Access to aggregated employee wellness data, such as having common stressors experienced by the majority of your employees ranked in order of frequency (and the severity of the impact on their mental health) can be quite powerful. Having these insights will help you be more confident about making an informed decision on how you can best support your people’s wellbeing.
As a director, to adequately answer the two questions raised above can be uncomfortable and not as cut and dry as reviewing the financials at a board meeting. However, it is even scarier to be flying blind with your decision making in the absence of any data.
At any given time, one in four of your people will be going through mental distress requiring additional support, so this is not an inconsequential problem affecting only a small proportion of your workforce. In addition, the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 requires organisations to have policies, processes, and monitoring systems to be put in place.
So it is important to not solely rely on your CEO’s word that everything is fine, as you would not be meeting your director’s duties by doing this.
It is crucial that your employees have a safe space to anonymously share their challenges and get immediate support to close that feedback loop. Even though they won’t want to be identified, they will have an expectation that you are providing relevant support to what they need - by being seen to be tackling the root causes of any stressors related to their work based on aggregated data reports, you are building relational trust and confidence that the organisation cares about them. This is critical during a time of crisis and change.
We spend so much time at work that there is a real responsibility for employers to not just be ticking boxes. And as directors you cannot prevent every single bad thing from happening.
However, there must be robust inquiries around the board table into how you can better support employee's mental health every day, not just when a crisis occurs.
You need to be proactively taking steps to improve the workplace culture and ensure that it is both ‘psychologically safe,’ and more importantly, a place for them to thrive and find purpose in.
A strong culture of wellbeing is modelled from the top and will build the company’s reputation and employees’ loyalty. Being proactive with managing your employees’ wellbeing will go further in building employee trust and psychological security when it is not seen to just be reactive or tokenistic after a moment of crisis.
Wellbeing is more than just a fruit bowl or providing employees with onsite counselling when a crisis happens. We are all different in how we make meaning and develop resilience, so having a range of tools that are personalised to guide us on our own wellbeing journey is key.
Fundamentally, mental wellbeing is more than just a feel-good vibe but can actually be measured in tangible and quantifiable ways at a board level through data points. This data should be collected through pulse checks, rather than once a year. And employees are more likely to openly disclose their situation when they are able to do so anonymously.
There are a myriad of benefits to investing in your people’s wellbeing, whether it is creativity, innovation, reduced sick leave and increased productivity. So start the journey by asking your management team whether your organisation has put in place a way of regularly checking in with your employees anonymously and let the data lead you to your organisation’s next step.
Dr. Angela Lim is a medical doctor and CEO & Co-founder of Clearhead. Clearhead is an innovative workplace wellbeing provider that takes a holistic and proactive approach to mental health and wellbeing that is driven by data and delivered through a user-friendly online platform.
Having sat on more than 15 boards, Angela understands the importance of good governance and the importance of managing health and safety risks effectively. That is why Clearhead focuses on supporting businesses to understand their employees better through data analytics and then targeting initiatives to drive systemic culture change.
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