With so many changes and challenges in the world and the workplace over the past couple of years, we’ve all been through a lot. From a pandemic to political unrest to The Great Resignation and a looming recession, disruption and uncertainty have affected our daily lives and contributed to feelings of burnout at work. And as a result, conversations about mental health and wellbeing have come to the forefront.
According to Mind Share Partners’ 2021 Mental Health at Work Report, 76% of employees surveyed — across all levels of seniority — reported at least some personal experience with a mental health symptom. Half of all respondents reported that they had either resigned or been terminated from a job for mental health reasons at some point in their career.
Not only are more studies revealing the effects of mental health in the workplace, but more and more people are talking openly about mental health challenges as the stigma subsides. So if you’ve been paying attention at all, you recognize that this is a problem — affecting job satisfaction, attrition, productivity, profitability, and the overall happiness and wellbeing of the workforce.
In short, people are struggling, but the good news is that there’s something we can do about it. As small business leaders, we have an opportunity to create workplace environments that are encouraging and supportive for everyone.
Here are 10 ways small business leaders can address and support employee mental health.
1. Make sure you’re as well staffed as possible.
Due to staffing shortages and a tight labor market, many small businesses have been operating with a skeleton crew. So those that do show up have been forced to juggle more tasks and take on greater responsibility.
Heavy workloads and high-pressure demands to work faster and longer hours often lead to physical and mental health challenges that could be avoided through adequate staffing. If you are understaffed, you may need to take a hard look at boosting compensation and other factors that will help you attract talent. It’s only a matter of time before your valued employees reach burnout or become resentful and leave.
2. Create more schedule stability and work consistency.
Many small businesses require frontline and hourly employees to work fluctuating schedules to meet fluctuating demands. While this has long been a common practice, research has found that erratic sleep routines, the stress of managing family obligations, childcare, and social calendars, and inconsistent pay are pitfalls of unstable work schedules that take a toll on workers.
Unpredictable schedules can affect the mental health and well-being of employees. While you may not always be able to guarantee a specific schedule, making a concerted effort to create more stability and consistency can make a positive difference in your employees’ lives.
3. Empower employees with greater autonomy.
Studies show that when employee autonomy is restricted, this leads to negative outcomes related to physical and mental health. Nobody likes to be micromanaged, and it can be degrading to have little to no discretion over how you spend a large portion of your day.
Most people perform better when given a little leeway in how they get their job done. Put the proper standards and protocols in place, but leave some latitude where you can.
4. Allow for more flexibility in when and where employees work.
Not every role can be done remotely, but jobs many are able to accommodate more flexibility than leaders are allowing. Is it really necessary for employees to work in the office from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday? Or would 7 to 4 or 9 to 6 work just as well? Could you allow for a hybrid arrangement?
Mental health and wellbeing have been central to the return-to-office debates. Many employees have argued that remote work or more flexibility has allowed them to skip a stressful commute, concentrate with fewer distractions, avoid microaggressions from coworkers, eat healthier, exercise more, and be more present for loved ones outside of work. In what ways can you support your workforce by offering more flexibility?
5. Extend more grace when personal needs arise.
Your employees have responsibilities and needs outside of work. Whether it’s caring for children, elders, or personal health concerns, or their hot water heater is flooding the garage — life happens! When good employees feel like their job is on the line or that they will face repercussions for handling personal needs when they arise, it can cause unnecessary stress and strain on their mental health.
Showing grace and allowing for accommodations as things come up will go a long way toward instilling a sense of trust and loyalty and supporting your employees’ emotional well-being.
6. Cultivate inclusivity and a sense of belonging.
Craving a sense of belonging is human nature. When people show up for work, they want to feel like they are part of something, that their contributions are meaningful and appreciated, and that they are comfortable and confident to be themselves. Nobody wants to feel like the odd one out, that they don’t fit in, or that they are easily replaceable.
When an employee feels alienated from their work, like a cog in a machine, it can weigh on their mental health. And when an employee feels like they are not valued or that their differences are not appreciated or celebrated, it can cause physical and emotional distress. Prioritizing a welcoming and affirming culture can go a long way in promoting employee satisfaction.
7. Provide growth and development opportunities.
Feeling stagnant in a job can be disheartening, lead to a lack of motivation, and negatively affect morale. Most people want to feel as if they are making progress or improving in some way. A job can either impede their growth by weighing them down or support them in becoming a better version of themselves.
Growth doesn’t have to mean a fast track to promotion; it can include opportunities for learning and personal development too. Bring in guest speakers. Host sessions that help employees hone their skills in time management, stress management, and other soft skills that benefit the employee both at work and in their personal lives.
8. Advocate for paid time off and benefits utilization.
When things are especially hectic at work, your hardest working and most loyal employees are likely to buckle down and take on even more responsibility than they should. They may feel as if they can’t take time off or that taking time off will burden their team. This isn’t healthy.
All work, no play, and little rest is a recipe for burnout. Encourage employees to use their vacation time and take personal time off to care for themselves and those that they love. Remind your employees of resources available both through work and in your community.
9. Encourage movement, fitness, and healthy habits.
Sitting at a desk all day, staring at a screen isn’t healthy for anyone. Not only can this make workers susceptible to medical problems, but a sedentary lifestyle can also lead to increased feelings of depression and anxiety.
There is a strong link between mental health and movement. Take walking meetings, meet up outside, and help employees set up standing desks. Challenge your team to a “steps contest” for fun. A balanced, whole foods diet can help employees feel better too; this isn’t about policing food choices or shaming anyone, but having healthy snacks available can help boost energy levels and overall wellness.
10. Spread positivity.
Dedicate your energy to reframing negative situations. Become aware of the thoughts you have in various situations. Look for patterns. Challenge yourself to figure out why you have negative thoughts. Work to reframe and find something positive about the situation.
Here are 10 phrases leaders can use to boost and encourage positivity at work:
I’m so happy to see you today.
I have been looking forward to working with you on this.
I always feel so [productive] when we work together.
I really admire the way you handled [that].
I am here to support you.
What is one thing that I can do to help you today?
I love the way you responded to [that challenge]!
I can tell that was hard work for you. Way to work it out!
Thank you for lending a hand with [this project]. I honestly couldn’t have done it without you.
That was my fault. Can we try again?
Lead by Example with Encouragement and Support
Every organization should become comfortable addressing employee mental health – millions of regular people are affected by mental illness, so it is important to recognize how very common this issue is and address it as a normal part of business.
Throughout our leadership careers, we’ve all heard this advice: Lead by Example. Normalize talking about mental health. Be mindful of the example that you’re setting. Your actions and statements will be repeated many times over by your employees.
Provide skill development for leaders, specifically in the area of empathic leadership and communication. Empathy is a trait that allows leaders to more deeply understand and connect with their team members. Helping leaders hone their ability to genuinely connect and then communicate effectively with, their team will ensure that there is mutual trust and understanding. Once there is trust, communication, and understanding, only then are leaders in a position to really help their employees.