Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes a weekly column about management and leadership as well as diversity and other important issues for WRAL TechWire. His columns are published on Wednesdays.

Note to readers: WRAL TechWire would like to hear from you about views expressed by our contributors. Please send email to: info@wraltechwire.com.

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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Talking about stress can be as taxing as experiencing it. Casually mentioning stress in a conversation often leads to a laundry list of challenges: missed deadlines, traffic jams, money woes and other perturbed moments that people weave across their work and personal lives. We use words like “stressed,” “exhausted” and “burned out” as central narratives in our everyday language, a kind of framework for how people view themselves and others. 

Photo courtesy of Donald Thompson

Donald Thompson

It’s not as if mental health isn’t an important topic. Since 1949, May has been designated Mental Health Awareness Month. Over that 74-year span, many important strides have been made in addressing and treating mental health challenges. Technological and scientific advances have increased the opportunity for care, while medications have eased the burdens for many people who need help. Yet, while the progress has been impressive, there is still much to be done to address mental health issues.

According to Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the United States, “Today, more and more workers are worried about making ends meet, dealing with chronic stress and struggling to balance the demands of both work and personal lives. The toll on their mental health is growing.”  

The “toll” that Murthy points to is exacerbated in today’s workplace. The blurred line between work and home has intensified how we look at mental wellbeing. The topic has gained newfound importance based on our collective interest in a person’s whole self after the many crises we’ve faced.

“Employee wellness is a critical aspect of any business, and employees can’t be well if their mental health is not part of the equation,” explains Kaela Sosa, co-founder and curriculum and programming manager at The Diversity Movement. “Poor mental health often leads to reduced productivity, absenteeism and high turnover rates, so leaders must take steps to educate themselves about this important topic while also assessing their own mental health.”

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MENTAL WELLBEING AT OUR FRONT DOOR 

Here in North Carolina, we might think we are especially stressed, given the reliance on fast-paced, knowledge-driven industries such as technology, advanced medical research, healthcare and financial services. But, poor mental health is a national epidemic. 

Mental Health America, a nonprofit organization that addresses the needs of those living with mental illness and promotes the overall mental health for everyone, ranked North Carolina 18th in the U.S. for adults and 24th for young people, both about middle-of-the-road in terms of prevalence of mental illness and rates of access to care. Based on these ratings, the state could benefit by placing more resources into treatment and care. 

More broadly, Mental Health America surveyed 11,000 workers across America in 17 different industries and found much more pointed evidence of our collective mental health crisis. Nearly 80% of the employees claimed that their workplace stress affects their relationships with friends, family and coworkers. Perhaps even more challenging, the same report revealed that  only 38% of those who know about their company’s mental health services would feel comfortable using them. 

TIPS FOR NAVIGATING MENTAL HEALTH CONVERSATIONS AT WORK

Leaders are facing two challenges when it comes to mental health. First, as the Mental Health America survey reveals, people are nervous about discussing the topic – as well as other “invisible ailments” – out of fear of being labeled or facing discrimination. Second, the mental health of senior leaders themselves is being studied more closely. 

Like so many aspects of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, one of the first steps in addressing workplace health is education, followed by communication. Here are four tips we’ve developed to better navigate mental health conversations at work. 

Be mindful of your language and behaviors – Many terms and phrases with real consequences have slipped into everyday language and can be hurtful and misleading. Avoid using inadvertently biased language, such as saying you or someone else has “OCD,” “ADD” or other real mental health issues. The Diversity Movement believes in the power of inclusive language, which you can explore further in Jackie Ferguson’s book, The Inclusive Language Handbook: A Guide to Better Communication and Transformational Leadership or in the one-hour online course, “Inclusive Language: Driving a Culture of Belonging.”

Be open, but don’t pry – According to Sosa, “Celebrating Mental Health Awareness Month is by no means an open invitation to ask your coworkers if they have a specific diagnosis. It is, however, an opportunity to be open to and accepting of conversations around mental health.” For the workplace to focus on wellbeing, then individuals have to really listen and be empathetic and compassionate. 

Encourage involvement – There are steps a coworker, manager or executive can take to demonstrate their commitment to improving mental health on their teams. Although it might seem minimal in the moment, inviting a colleague out for coffee or setting up a Zoom check-in can have outsized positive benefits.

Encourage utilization of support and resources – As our understanding of mental health continues to expand, more resources are available via company-sponsored insurance plans and outside resources designed to help people at the point of care and generally. Managers and leaders should encourage their teams to seek the professional support they need. Executives aren’t expected to “fix” everything, but they can go a long way toward helping if they urge employees to use the organization’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), if available, or encourage them to get a referral from their primary care provider.

MENTAL HEALTH IN THE C-SUITE 

In 2022, a Deloitte report looking at the C-suite’s role in mental health revealed that about one-third of both employees and executives are struggling with fatigue and poor mental health. Despite these similar experiences, however, the C-suite’s perception of wellbeing among employees skews toward the positive with 80% of executives claiming their employees are thriving. The net result is a harmful disconnect in the way people look at mental health and how to utilize resources available to them. 

“Both groups are finding it difficult to make time for their well-being,” the report explains. “Only around half of employees and two-thirds of the C-suite use all their vacation time, take microbreaks during the day, get enough sleep and have enough time for friends and family.”

Clearly, senior executives need to think about how they are coping with mental health. In a post-pandemic world filled with a lot of economic and political uncertainty, C-suite executives have to have courage, not only in decision-making and leadership, but in managing their own mental wellbeing. And, they need to be realistic about what those around them are feeling. 

Let’s be blunt – many executives have to deal with loneliness. Few people in their immediate circles of friends and families understand the pulls on their time, effort and energy. When you’re a CEO, every second of every day, somebody wants something from you. The information you’re given is always filtered. And, people’s motives might not even be in your best interests. So, it takes courage to cope with this feeling of loneliness and focus on what’s best for the organization. 

In the past, many leaders were expected to be immune to so-called “soft” issues, like mental health. This vestige of old-school management thinking is hurting efforts to create workplace excellence and positive culture change. Executives who prioritize their own mental wellbeing will not only be better leaders, but they will also be more empathetic to what their people are experiencing. 

About the Author 

Donald Thompson founded The Diversity Movement to literally change the world. As CEO, he has guided its work with hundreds of clients and through hundreds of thousands of data touch points. TDM’s global recognition centers on tying DEI initiatives to business objectives. Recognized by Inc., Fast Company and Forbes, he is the author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, hosts the podcast “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World” and has published widely on leadership and the executive mindset. As a leadership and executive coach, Thompson has created a culture-centric ethos for winning in the marketplace by balancing empathy and economics. Follow him on LinkedIn for updates on news, events, and his podcast, or contact him at info@donaldthompson.com for executive coaching, speaking engagements or DEI-related content.