Is Your Workplace Healthy?

Businesses face challenges from numerous angles, and leaders are tasked with understanding and addressing them. Many resources and case studies have helped leaders learn how to deal with things like competitive analysis, gaining market share, employee engagement, cost reduction, and manufacturing efficiencies. But a hidden challenge has made itself more prominent in recent years, and much of it goes unacknowledged by management: the mental illness of employees.
Data continues to show that the mental health of an organization’s staff is critical in determining how well an organization functions. Weakened mental health is a silent enemy, and it takes a keen understanding of its nature, causes, and solutions to address it effectively. According to the Johns Hopkins Mental Health in the Workplace Summit, mental illness is the leading cause of disability for U.S adults under the age of 44.
Many leaders unknowingly run organizations hampered by employee disability due to mental illness. Some leaders don’t see it, others don’t want to. It is a very real issue that inhibits organizations, yet many in leadership fail to address. But with the proper approach, leaders can effectively help their people recover and maintain their mental health.
The Cost of Mental Illness
Studies show that people are greatly affected by their work environment. Their experiences, pressures, and failures take a toll, often chipping away at their mental health. As technology accelerates the speed of commerce—and as a result, its demands and shortcomings—a greater percentage of the workforce is squeezed in the vice we call progress. It has become a chronic problem.
The World Health Organization posted in a recent publication that worker mental illness, in its various forms, costs the global economy over $1 trillion each year. Employee absenteeism is more heavily caused by mental illness than physical illness or injury according to the Mental Health in the Workplace summit. One in five adults in the U.S. experience a form of mental illness and less than half are getting treated. A survey of office employees conducted by workplace consultants Peldon Rose reveal that three out of four employees would like their employer to oversee mental health initiatives, with workable plans and treatment opportunities. Ninety-five percent claim that their work environment is an important factor in their state of wellbeing and mental health.
Many leaders have a bigger issue on their hands than they realize: their workplace can cause their people great distress in ways that don’t surface to the passing eye. This, in turn, causes diminished effectiveness and organizational output. Attitudes suffer, and the cycle perpetuates. Mental distress causes abnormal behavior and responses. Anger, impatience, apathy, silence, and disengagement are observed responses by those experiencing mental illness.
The mental illnesses of concern aren’t degenerative clinical disorders. The most common problems involve depression, anxiety, and fear. These are no longer dismissed as emotional phases or passing stages. Experts have come to regard extended seasons of these as ailments, due to their lasting impacts, debilitating effects, and the need for treatment.
With mental illness in the workforce, organizations experience abnormal turnover, communication breakdown, dissatisfied customers, and shrinking profits. It benefits every leader to understand this growing issue and learn how to meet the mental health needs of their people.
The Causes of Workplace Related Mental Illness
People consider their jobs to be a significant part of their lives, and not just for the obvious income-providing reason. Naturally, their lifestyles depend on a reliable source of funds. But the study of human behavior indicates that people need their employment for more than income, whether they consciously recognized it or not.
Our jobs provide us with purpose through opportunities of accomplishment. Employment, when experienced in a positive environment, offers the all-important sense of value. Working people look to their jobs to find self-esteem and satisfaction by being needed and accepted as competent. These are fundamental needs, and when they aren’t met, the spirit suffers. Prolonged periods of emotional neediness inflict significant damage, where the mind responds unfavorably with numerous effects.
The human spirit reacts to its surroundings. When the workplace treats people poorly (or they have the impression they are being treated poorly), they respond negatively. The mind jumps to their defense and justifies an altered line of behavior.
Employees sense poor treatment when they are disrespected. This can involve being ignored, ridiculed, subjectively judged, or discriminated against. An employee’s emotions manifest as anger, resentment, or rejection. Worse than disrespect is abuse. A person who is reprimanded needlessly, insulted, antagonized, or threatened will develop a sense of inferiority or hopelessness. They may feel targeted, worthless, insecure, or fearful.
Poor treatment, and the pressures of a dynamic and demanding environment, cause some to wonder if they can cope. Survival mode is a desperate place to be, causing people to worry about losing their job and life-sustaining income. This weight also impacts their families. People experiencing these kinds of emotions can’t work at peak productiveness. Mental illness debilitates cognition, memory, and responses. It demotivates, destabilizes, and may be manifested as anxiety if relief isn’t found.
Depression can also set in. Experts understand depression to be a prevalent issue in the workplace. They know this from surveys, since it is by and large an unspoken subject at the employee level. This is due to the difficulty of self-diagnosis and the unwillingness to be open about personal problems. The subject is still difficult to raise in many workplaces.
Mental illness affects much more than a person’s work. It negatively affects their physical, family, and social health. This often worsens the mental health spiral.  Leaders who recognize the importance of mental health create an environment that supports it.
Addressing Mental Health
The primary step in treating or minimizing mental health issues within your staff is awareness. Leaders who understand the problem and know how to spot the telltale signs have a great advantage in creating an environment that can effectively address mental health.
Reactionary measures rely on leaders being observant. When an employee negatively changes their behavior, there are definite reasons why. Look for indications of depression, nervousness, or unusual emotional expression. For example, explore why normally out-going people become withdrawn. Attitude adjustments like apathy, disinterest, or unwillingness are red flags. Of course, it helps for the leader to get to know their people well enough to spot such changes in behavior or attitude.
Due to the prevalence of mental health issues in the workplace, it is wise for companies to establish employee assistance resources, either on-site or nearby. Give people the consideration they need when facing problems, and offer professional help. Corporate mental health policies add another layer of consideration by treating troubled employees with respect and support. A Fortune article by health and wellness expert Alan Krohll suggests reviewing and improving internal policies, and including all employees in the training. People are taught how to come alongside distressed coworkers and show them they are cared for.
Preventative measures revolve around leaders creating an enjoyable culture. Do you trust your people? Or do you micromanage and keep them under your control? Giving people the autonomy and freedom to make decisions prevents a controlled and powerless feeling. It gives their efforts meaning and assigns value to them. People sense themselves growing and enjoy being part of a group effort that appreciates their contributions.
A culture that supports employees—that offers direction, communication, and the resources needed to successfully accomplish tasks—gives people peace of mind. They know they are prioritized as valuable assets. This diminishes stress and worry, and forges positive attitudes, mindsets, and feelings. Leaders who respond to the project needs of their people provide assurances that their environment is safe. Safety offers stability and confidence, resulting in satisfaction rather than anxiety.
A qualified executive coach can offer beneficial counsel on maintaining a healthy culture. Give your people your best, and they’ll give you their best. Their mental health is worth protecting.

Building a Strong Culture

Some companies prosper and draw the business world’s attention. They continuously grow, innovate and impress. In contrast, others struggle, never breaking through to reach their desired success. The latter must deal with downsizing, financial shortfalls, market-share losses and tarnished reputations.

The disparities are glaring. While leaders of prosperous companies garner industry admiration, those who head besieged organizations wonder where they went wrong. They search for explanations as to why their operations haven’t fulfilled their potential.

Research in social science and organizational behavior points to a critical quality, one that most directs every company’s future: culture. A strong culture consistently leads to robust performance, while a weak culture suffers ongoing failures.

Leaders who discount the importance of culture are apt to bear predictable consequences. They must define, assess and strengthen their organizational culture to thrive.

Culture’s Impact

Culture is to an organization as personality is to a person. Personality describes how we think, act and respond to the circumstances we face.

Similarly, an organization’s culture determines how people act or work, what they believe or stand for and how they respond to pressures and challenges. Every company, without exception, has a culture.

Leaders unfamiliar with the concept of corporate culture or organizational behavior are out of touch with the daily workings within their walls. They fail to realize that culture drives:

  • How well (or how poorly) teams function
  • Whether customers’ needs are being met
  • Whether employees’ needs are fulfilled
  • Company health and well-being
  • Future outlook

Leadership expert John Coleman describes Six Components of a Great Corporate Culture (Harvard Business Review, May 6, 2013):

  • A unifying vision or mission that fashions one’s purpose and plans
  • A code of values that influences behavior and mindsets
  • Practices that support and enhance people
  • A recruiting process that matches people to the desired culture
  • A celebrated heritage that tells the company’s story and what it stands for
  • A beneficial working environment to optimize synergy

A trained observer, like an executive coach, can quickly assess whether one’s culture embodies these characteristics.

A strong culture can increase net income by more than 700% in an 11-year span, according to a 2012 study published in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Contemporary Research in Business.Other research confirms culture as a significant factor in determining success or failure.

Essential Skill Sets

Creating and sustaining a strong group culture is one of the most misunderstood and elusive aspects of leadership in today’s business climate. Some leaders are disinterested in their culture, with no desire to delve into an area that, for them, is mysterious and superfluous. Others recognize culture’s importance but are too intimidated to tackle it. Still others attempt to craft a culture, but their unfamiliarity prevents them from taking prudent steps—and they may even make matters worse.

A strong company culture doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s based on constructive relationships and interactions. But humans, by nature, fail to engage each other constructively. Selfish impulses and habits get in the way. Fears, stubborn beliefs, prejudices and pride also inhibit healthy group dynamics.

It takes focused and deliberate leaders to establish, nurture and grow a strong culture.
Leadership expert Daniel Coyle identifies three foundational skill sets or proficiencies in The Culture Code (Bantam Books, 2018). The principles are simple, but following them requires wisdom and empathy:

  • Define the organization’s purpose. Values and goals must be shared so everyone is on the same page. A strong culture begins with unity and a common purpose.
  • Foster mutual trust. Establishing a culture where people trust each other and their leader takes time, but it empowers people to excel.
  • Create a sense of safety. People instinctively yearn for safety, security, a sense of belonging and a personal identity. Employees who feel safe engage wholeheartedly, without fear of reprisal or condemnation. Leaders must provide a consistently safe environment.

Post Your Purpose

Without a fundamental purpose, organizations cannot steer efforts in any general direction. Employees need a reason to serve, shared goals, a common cause and focus. They need to know what their organization stands for so they can embrace its stance.

Leaders are charged with creating a vision of the company’s future. They’re required to disseminate and promote it so others can fall in line. Purpose or mission statements are noble callings to serve, respond to and meet the public’s needs.

A purpose can tell a story, hinge on a legacy or chase a dream. Each unites people as they endeavor to achieve something together. Culture is enhanced by accomplishing something that’s possible only when everyone shares the same purpose.

Effective leaders know that hitting people over the head with mission statements causes more harm than good. People respond best to small, frequent, unobtrusive reminders of their purpose. Offer frequent encouragement and feedback.

Leaders can work with a qualified executive coach to hone the following vital skills:

  • Clearly state individual and collective priorities. People want to know what’s expected of them.
  • Overstate priorities to ensure everyone is in sync. There’s no need to be forceful or indignant. Aim for supportive and motivational.
  • Provide high-feedback training, as Coyle calls it. This allows people to fail and find ways to improve. Culture blooms when people are empowered to learn and grow. Be sure to celebrate small victories.

Train to Trust

A strong culture depends on an environment of trust, where people can count on each other, take risks together and benefit from the resulting successes. Leaders who inspire authenticity entice people to step out of their comfort zones and enjoy the spirit of cooperation.

Leaders enhance trust when they’re transparent and humble. Display humility by expressing a need for help. People are drawn to leaders who are willing to exhibit fallibility. Admitting weaknesses and setting aside insecurities reveal a real person who can be trusted.

Trust builds teamwork, which inspires cooperation and a vital interconnectedness. Trust is founded on relationships—and the stronger the relationships, the healthier the culture. Once again, leaders can benefit from the assistance of an experienced executive coach to optimize their people skills and relational intelligence.

Great leaders are comfortable dealing with subordinates when problems arise. They approach difficult situations and challenging employees face to face, with care and honor. They’re firm but fair. Trusted leaders prioritize relationships and make sure employees feel appreciated.

Leaders gain employees’ trust through active listening. When you thoughtfully address people’s situations and allow them to speak freely, you cultivate greater trust.

Giving honest feedback to employees further raises the trust bar. Be candid, sincere and helpful. As Coyle suggests, provide “targeted” or specific feedback. People want to contribute the best they have to offer and be valued resources. They need detailed critiques and a chance to earn your approval. Avoid judgmental comments so you can nurture their self-esteem.

High self-esteem allows employees to show initiative and avoid the need for continuous oversight. The best cultures feature self-directed teams whose leaders interject only when necessary. Employees become more invested and engaged in their work, which makes for a strong culture.

Provide Safety

All humans want to feel safe. They need to feel they belong, are cared for and valued at work. Leaders who provide purpose and a trusting environment are in the best position to offer a sense of safety.

People feel safe when they can trust their relationships without concerns over politics, personalities and resentments. They want to know their relationships will last and grow stronger. Employees who feel safe invest in the team dynamic and perform better.

Leaders build a strong culture when they emphasize relationships and set an example. Show interest in your people, and emphasize that everything done within your organization is built on relationships.

Leaders who foster a sense of belonging build strong cultures. Coyle provides the following helpful strategies:

  • Receive people’s ideas and proposals with an open mind. Make them feel glad for contributing, not regretful. Let their voice be heard, and remind them that you need their ideas because their perspectives have value.
  • Express thanks, which affirms the importance of relationships and provides motivation. If everyone’s efforts are important, a healthy codependency and unity develop.
  • Accept bad news, and don’t shoot messengers. People who face threats for being truthful will learn to be silent. This kills a culture.
  • Roll up your sleeves and get dirty. Leaders who place themselves above ordinary tasks erect barriers. When everyone is equally willing to contribute, teamwork expands and a sense of safety prevails.
  • Don’t pad bad news with good. Beating around the bush or hedging your delivery signals disingenuousness, which spells danger. Say it like it is, but do so sincerely and considerately. Being truthful tells people you have their best interests at heart.