Just because she’s famous, doesn’t mean that the hazards of her chosen occupation won’t wear her down. Tennis player Naomi Osaka’s refusal to speak to the media after her French Open tournament match and her subsequent withdrawal is keeping the topic of mental health on the agenda – not just for famous people, but for the working world in general.
You can bet that every organization has a Naomi Osaka. But how many leaders really feel comfortable with just how to address mental health issues in the workplace?
What happens when a mental health issue arises and threatens the ability of the professional to fulfill their duties and subsequently the working relationship? Who is responsible for addressing it? How do leaders balance the obligation to get results while at the same time fostering a culture that addresses mental health of employees responsibly?
When my husband and I took over my family’s hotel business, I had no idea about the amount of time would be spent leading and managing our staff (not to mention ourselves). It turned out that the work of a leader is far heavier on the psychological aspects of the job (vs. strategic and operational) than you could ever imagine. The reality is that we all spend a lot of time at work and that the personal and professional are much more blurred than we may want to admit. It really should come as no surprise then, that when it comes to mental health, there’s no sweeping it under the rug. Over the year’s, I’ve been confronted with both the mental health of my staff as well as myself. Here’s what I’ve learned.
I’ll venture to guess that many leaders out there still think that mental health issues are personal and should be left out of the workplace. I thought that too. Come to find out, the personal is always professional. People show up to work as human beings, not robots. There is no switch to turn off what might be affecting them, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with work. This does not mean that leaders should jump on every bad day of one of their staff. Sometimes its just that – a bad day. But when patterns begin to develop, a leader may need to take action. Ignoring the signs of a potential mental health issue with an employee will only prolong and potentially escalate the impact at work. Sometimes simply acknowledging that you see that a staff member is struggling and that you are there for support is enough. It may make them aware for the first time that what is happening with them on the inside, is now showing on the outside and that they need to take their own steps to address it.
Know the limits of your expertise
Mental health issues can be caused by a myriad of both personal and professional circumstances. They can also manifest themselves differently. Some people might react by calling out of work, missing deadlines or demonstrate a signs of a declining attitude. Other’s might respond to mental health issues by working more and becoming so intertwined with their job that they lack a healthy separation between the personal and professional. Whatever the cause and the result is, its not our role to judge or draw conclusions, especially if we have no experience of our own. No one is a better expert about their mental health challenges, than the person feeling it.
It is not our job as leaders to diagnose or to treat serious mental health issues. This is tricky, because in my experience, its not always clear in the first instance what you may be dealing with. A few years back I learned first-hand with two employees that separating performance issues from mental health issues is extremely difficult. In both situations I spent hours and hours for almost 3 years supporting and coaching these employees to address what I thought were work performance issues that I could influence. Nothing worked and no matter how hard I tried, the same problems came back again and again. If an employee demonstrates repeated patterns of behavior that don’t improve with performance feedback and you sense that the behavior is linked to past unresolved experiences and/or trauma, it may be time to open up a conversation about getting professional help.
Reflect on your role
What happens if an employee expresses that their mental health challenge is directly related to their work environment? If that’s the case, your role as a leader is to take that seriously and to evaluate what factors around their job could be changed. Is there a culture of overwork? Is feedback constantly negative? Are employees punished for mistakes? Is the employee experiencing micro-aggressions or discrimination and nothing is being done about it? Does the employee have a verbally abusive boss? Are you the problem? Acknowledging your own possible role as a leader is one of the hardest things you will do, but you and your organization will only be better for it. Take a step back, invest in organization and leadership development, hire a coach.
Give space to heal
In a work environment that values and models psychological safety, employees are given space to be human and show up as a whole person. If an employee is addressing a mental health issue and recovering, giving that employee some time and flexibility to support their recovery process can go a long way. In my organization we have had multiple experiences with losing loved ones to untimely death. These experiences can have a significant impact on mental health. In this process I have found that tailoring the professional response as an organization to the individual needs of each employee has been successful. I check-in with the employee regularly, foster an environment of open communication and ask how I can help.
Addressing mental health issues at work, comes with boundaries on both the part of the employee and the organization. An employee has the right to their privacy and can refuse any support offered by their leadership or prefer to not communicate about it. On the other side, a leader and an organization has the right to draw the line when un-resolved mental health issues continue to impact bottom line results. As a last result, either side may conclude that the job is no longer the right fit for the circumstances.
Strengthen your own mental health
Leaders face a barrage of challenges every day of all kinds. Constantly being in a state of reaction and problem- solving mode can take a heavy toll on your own mental health. As a leader of a growing company I was not prepared for the amount of mental health issues of employees that would come across my path. The impact on me has swayed from deeply emotional to the other end of the spectrum where I experience a state of dissociation where I feel almost no emotion at all. Neither extreme is healthy and I have found that when I’m operating in those extremes that I need to look inward at my own mental health and engage in strategies to re-cooperate such as taking time off, exercising, sleeping more or engaging with outside professional support.
Reactions from leaders in the tennis industry to Osaka’s continue to play out this week and most likely reflect the kind of varied leadership personas that exist in most organizations.
The punisher - The USTA fined Osaka $15,000 for skipping the press conference.
The ally – The CALM app donated the equivalent amount of Osaka’s fine, $15,000, to a mental health organization.
The emotionally intelligent boss – NIKE expressed support for Osaka and applauded her for opening up about her mental health challenges.
I’m excited to go to work today and talk about mental health – said no leader ever. However, whether or not you want to, mental health in the workplace is a topic that every leader will be confronted with especially as more companies re-open and expand their workforces post pandemic. The question is, what kind of leader do you want to be when it happens?
Rachel Vandenberg is a leadership coach living in Stowe, Vermont with her husband and three children. Rachel also owns and operates a hotel and attractions property with her family. She sits on the board of the local tourism association and also created a leadership retreat for women leaders in travel.