No Bull$*#t Conversation About Mental Health in the Workplace with MindWise Innovations

Recently Mursion invited Senior Vice President Bryan Kohl and Director of Behavioral Health Consulting Lisa Desai of MindWise Innovations for a “Future of Work” Roundtable discussion, which covered the crucial topic of mental health and how it relates to education and work.

A bit of background: MindWise Innovations equips schools, workplaces, colleges, and communities with tools to help them address behavioral health issues, substance use, and suicide risk. Powered by the behavioral health professionals at Riverside Community Care, MindWise’s suite of products includes online tools and trainings that provide guidance to those struggling with depression, opioid and substance use, anxiety, trauma, eating disorders, and more. MindWise partners with organizations who want to end the stigma that prevents their members from seeking assistance. 

This dialogue between Bryan and Lisa was a revealing look at how mental health issues are being handled in schools and workplaces across the country, especially during the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic and the societal injustice we are facing as a nation. Below is an excerpt of that conversation.

Lisa: There’s so much in the media, there is so much about how difficult it is to balance working from home in a variety of ways. In some ways, talking about it now is expected, it’s unavoidable. The question is, is that the only reason we’re talking about it now? I would say absolutely not. This has been a long-term issue at work, in our lives and it’s important that we find a way to talk about it.

Bryan: I think what’s been encouraging for us, as we engage organizations and communities and schools across the globe, what’s been encouraging is that there is an appetite. There’s a burgeoning appetite. We could argue that that appetite has always been there, but there’s a burgeoning appetite to talk about this stuff. I often think back to something my father shared with me just recently.

He said when he looked back over his career, he realized that the expression checking your baggage at the door did more harm than good. That it was, in his words, asinine to think that any of us could “check our baggage at the door.” I carry that with me now and really recognize that it’s not in anyone’s best interest and it’s not possible. 

Lisa: I want to say I think Bryan’s dad was onto something. There was a recent Harvard Business Review article that said 40% of employees in their study actually wanted to talk about mental health in the workplace. Maybe we’ve had it all wrong in thinking that people aren’t comfortable talking about it. Maybe it’s because the environment is not one where there’s comfort.

Bryan: How is mental health treated in your workplace? Is this an official policy but hasn’t been operationalized? Very different now that COVID-19 is reality or there is an official wellness program?

Lisa: I’m just going to touch upon Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In this pandemic, that hierarchy has been turned sideways and upside down so that we’re really very much focused on, is it safe to go out today? What do I need to do to be safe? Do I put on my gloves? Do I put on my mask? We’re less thinking about what are my goals and my aspirations? I would say that the love and belonging, that sense of relationship is also been central now. It’s key that we think about this because of the impact it has on our mental health.

I think it’s important to recognize that this is the impact of the pandemic. Remember that in the general population for adults, 70% of adults in the general population of United States experienced anxiety, and 40% in the workplace before the pandemic experienced signs of anxiety and depression. Again, highlighting that this was happening even before this current crisis.

Bryan: Lisa, what do we know about anxiety tied to burnout and what we’ve recently learned through the World Health Organization on burnout?

Lisa: Huge correlation between burnout, anxiety, depression, stress, difficulty managing stress, workplace stress in particular to the point that the World Health Organization in the last year formally identified it as an occupational disability.

Bryan: One thing that we often talk about within MindWise is this feeling of vulnerability. As leaders, as managers, as individual contributors, and embracing that vulnerability is important. Recognizing that it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re powerless. Lisa is going to introduce a framework that we think is it’s no best framework. Just cuts to the chase and gives us the tools, the language to address what it is we’re experiencing. I think through the lens for leaders and managers, through the lens of servant leadership, for example, vulnerability is awfully important.

The HBR article that Lisa referenced, talks about now more than ever leaders need to embrace, demonstrate that vulnerability. That in and of itself facilitates psychological safety. Embracing the vulnerability, what we’re recognizing. 

Lisa: Exactly. When we’re in the midst of instability and particularly in this particular pandemic where it’s our professional and our personal lives, feel very unstable and unpredictable. Again, as Bryan said, we refer to a framework developed by our trauma specialist safety predictability and control. It’s really a group of guidelines that help us deal on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis used by individuals as well as by organizations. Safety is the idea that we know how to take care of our physical safety. We know again mask, the social distancing, so on, and so forth. What do we do though in terms of our personal sense of safety in the home?

How can we create some routines that give that predictability? Our schedules for work, our ability to go to the office, the things that we relied on as part of our schedules, we can no longer do. How do we create schedules on a daily basis not only for ourselves, but for our teams, for our children, for our spouses? Then finally, the sense of control. I think this very much comes down to what can we identify in our daily lives that we have control over? There’s much going on right now that we have no control over.

How can we help our team members, ourselves, and our children have some modicum of control by making decisions that they are are empowered to make? From an organizational standpoint, the safety comes from the sense of being held, psychologically held by a leader, and so much of that is tied to psychological safety. It’s about creating a culture where there’s clear communication, where there’s a sense of respect and a sense of being honest about, not really sure what the plan is to come back to work, but we’re working on it and we’ll let you know when we have one.

Bryan: We just recently saw a study that said almost 40% of organizations have not addressed COVID-19 with their employee base. That’s shocking. It’s the antithesis of what we’re recommending around safety predictability and control versus some of the progressive thinking organizations that are all over it twice a week distributing communications.

While some of this really sounds just common sense, it’s organization’s ability to execute and follow through on the safety, predictability, and control. That’s really, really critical now more than ever. 

Lisa: I think that what you touched upon earlier in terms of the leadership and they’re being involved from the beginning of implementing. If you’re going to be talking in terms of safety, predictability and control and the key leaders are communicating, it’s important they stay engaged throughout the process.

Bryan: Let’s acknowledge that sometimes these conversations aren’t easy. We have to have the language to talk about this stuff. Leaders within organizations aren’t born with the language. Part of what’s really important, think about the plans, think about those wellness plans you have that have been fully operationalized.

Are you being given the language, taught the language to talk about this? More importantly, are you being given the opportunity as leaders to practice those conversations? Should someone approach you with a significant issue, are you prepared to have those conversations?

Lisa: Having those conversations breathes that similarity with what you’re talking about and also allows for spontaneous conversations. There was a large-scale study in Canada that looked at workplace mental health and programs. One of the findings they had was that having these “spontaneous conversations” was key so that they may not happen in a meeting with a manager or with a team. It may be in the hallway, it may be on another Zoom call talking about something else. It’s good to be prepared and to have those tools to have the conversations.

Bryan: What must happen? What’s going to happen to ensure that safety, predictability, and control becomes a part of the way work gets done or part of the way we communicate across employee base?

What’s funny about psychological safety is we’ve been talking about it for 15, 20 years. It’s been in the last three months that I’ve ever seen more written about psych safety than I’ve ever seen across the last 10, 15 years. Organizations have to look at themselves. They’ve got to assess their culture and determine are we “psychologically safe”? How to operationalize that? 

Lisa: I think it’s very much around the language that we discussed having. Having the openness and providing the environment to talk about it, having tools. It can be screening, it can be education, it can be leadership. How do we instill a sense that we’re all learning about this together, we’re all committed to this, and we’re going to talk openly about it?

Bryan: Leaders have to model that behavior, which is all the more reason to have these types of conversations and to practice these conversations in very safe environments. The microaggressions, I think we see a lot of that getting addressed now through D&I functions. I think that microaggressions that could very easily be something that you could address through immersion.

I think you got to call it out when you see it. You got to learn how to recognize it and then call it out. A lot of what we do within MindWise is helping people understand what it is they’re observing, not just what they’re feeling or what they’re observing. 

Lisa: There’s a lot of talk around building empathy and being aware of how that can make a huge difference in the way that fear can inform microaggressions. So that when you’re talking about psychological safety and building an environment, that’s collaborative. It can really have a positive impact and hopefully allow that microaggression to be addressed in a more productive, less threatening way for the individual.

Of course, if there are times where it’s not improving, then there needs to be good protocol in place to think about how to address it in a way that’s protective to the team and to the environment, as well as helpful to the individual.

Bryan: The other question is around, “Hey, my organization, we’re just trying to stay afloat. We’re in survival mode.” Forgive me, this might sound campy, but I think more now than ever, we need to establish the cycle of safe environment. I think the fact that we’re in just to survive or in survival mode necessitates the conversation around psychological safety. I’d also rather think about it as a culture and not necessarily just as a thing. It’s a culture, and it is what will eventually help you retain and attract talent moving forward. 

We know how psychologically safe environments help prevent things like absenteeism. I think that there’s cost associated with this, as well. This operationalizing piece, I get it, easier said than done, but it does require some purge. 

We’ve all experienced that individual who is checked out, isn’t present, and in some sectors poses a danger. A danger to him or herself or a danger to others.

We don’t want to affect a dollar amount to human life acknowledging that that lost productivity nears $1 trillion across the globe is truly remarkable. The way we think about productivity is yes, absolutely, organizations want to be productive, but me if I don’t feel productive, I’m not going to produce. I will not feel as good about myself as I need to feel. It’s about the individual’s sense of productivity. That’s what enhances the organizational productivity or the productivity of the organization.

Lisa: I’ll add in terms of the cost, the financial cost to companies. When companies that are tracking this look at short-term and long-term disability cost. Those that are attached to mental health issues especially ones that escalated outweigh major medical cost combined.

Bryan: What are we going to do about it? We need to learn how to talk about this stuff. We’re not treating this conversation. We’re not trying to disrespect the conversation through the use of the word stuff. Let’s just learn how to talk about this stuff. Second, is we need data. We need to better understand. We need that baseline understanding across an organization. We need the data to inform program development.

What sorts of things can your organization do to maximize that investment? Then finally, and I think, Lisa, myself would argue most importantly, we need safe places to practice these conversations to include spontaneous conversations. Lisa, you alluded to that earlier, what do we mean by spontaneous conversations?

Lisa: Spontaneous conversations are exactly that they have been in an unplanned fashion. One of the studies found is that these conversations, particularly coming from leadership, were incredibly impactful and helpful. On the contrary, there was a human resource executive article that came out that talked about 47% of employees in a study who did approach their manager had a negative conversation, and it had a negative impact.

When you think about that, when you think that 60% of employees want to be talking about this as a sense of relief and to help them professionally and personally, and yet in another study, 47 felt it was a negative experience, it really lays the groundwork for why we need to practice the conversations and feel empowered and help one another feel empowered to be supportive and proactive.