This week we hear from Hannah Keal. Hannah is the MD at Unleashed, a far-from-your-average consultancy that supports high-growth startups + scaleups with all things People, Culture + Leadership. On a mission to support businesses to scale both successfully + sustainably. You can find out more about them here.
Mental health awareness week has been and gone, but its theme for this year, kindness, feels more urgent and necessary to me than ever.
I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on how leaders can build kinder cultures, not just for a week, but full stop. Cultures that are both human and humane. Cultures that are built around compassionate leadership and genuine care for the team (who are, after all, your most valuable asset*).
*Side note: I cannot wait for the day when we’ve all stopped talking about people in these terms. For now though, this is a much better alternative to ‘human resource’ or god forbid, human capital (shudder).
A recent study found that 65% of people report that work has a negative effect on their mental health.
Imma let that sink in for a second.
I’m shocked by this statistic, but I’m not surprised. Toxic cultures actively traumatise people. As a People person, I have seen it and heard it many times. From microaggressions and everyday degradation to blatant despicable behaviour and bullying - it wears people down.
But it’s not just toxic cultures that harm our mental health. It is also actively detrimental to our wellbeing when we lack control over what we do or when our hard work goes ignored or underappreciated. Not having those basic things leads to disengagement and disconnection. The last available global report on engagement and productivity trends, published by Gallup in 2017, indicates that just 15% of employees worldwide are actively engaged in their work.
Work is traditionally thought of as a positive, protective factor for our mental health. But the above stats, and other research around this area add a pretty clear caveat - once your basic needs are met, ‘work’ is not enough. It must be work that means something. This is not a utopian, Gen X’y ideal-scenario-type statement and frankly, I’m sick of hearing that it is - that’s just a way of shutting down the conversation and a piss poor defence for employers who are actively causing harm to their teams.
Creating change is incredibly achievable and employers have a responsibility to make it happen.
This isn’t just a moral imperative. Nor is it just about the legal duty of care that employers have towards their teams, or alleviating the strain from PR agencies called in to whitewash the reputations of famously awful employers like Revolut. (Although they too must be feeling the strain right now considering callout culture has finally got around to businesses).
No - employers also owe a responsibility for investing in mental health to their shareholders - the yearly cost of poor mental health is huge, both in terms of dollar dollar bills and productivity - but on the plus side, so’s the ROI of investing in it.
Creating a kind culture that genuinely supports your team’s mental health (or at least, does not harm it) doesn’t happen overnight, and it takes work. There is plenty of excellent content already out there about benefits to invest in and raising awareness - but in this article, I’d like to highlight some subtler but vital shifts. I’d also like to flag that if your business is already well established, moving towards a kinder culture may well involve making the kind of deep structural changes and shifts that we also need to make as a society to route out injustice wherever we encounter it.
Sound like a challenge? Stick with me. I want to guide you through some implementable first steps centered around fostering compassion that you can get going with today (yep, virtually). Then I’ll zoom out (no pun intended) and share some insight on how to lay the foundations for a culture that has a positive impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing in the long run.
Human beings crave the ability to be masters of their own destiny. Autonomy is well-established as a key motivator at work (see Dan Pink’s work). We don’t have a lot of control over the fact we’re in a global pandemic right now, so if there were ever a time to empower your people and give them as much control as possible over the things that are within their sphere of influence - yep, you guessed it, it’s now.
Think about how you are running virtual meetings. Have you just transferred everything that’s usually in the calendar over to a zoom call? That’s going to be pretty painful for everyone involved. Assess what’s really needed to keep work moving and give people back the ability to manage their own time (this might also prove that your team were right all along when they flagged that spending 75% of their week in meetings wasn’t all that productive!). People need to be able to take control of their calendar, and organise their own time, whether that’s around caring responsibilities, self-care and exercise requirements or deep work (hint, it’s probably a little bit of the 3).
Bonus tip whilst we’re at it, if you have rules around having your camera on - consider who that’s for. It’s likely that there are people in your team who are not feeling their best right now - watching their every movement track on-screen might stop them from contributing to the meeting due to self-consciousness or anxiety.
Once this is over, we truly have an opportunity to rebuild work in a way that works for everyone. Consult your team about what they’d like to see - a move to fully distributed work, a phased approach with greater flexibility about where to work from; a better, more gender agnostic approach to parental leave because some of your team have seen and felt the clear impact of being able to spend more time with their newborn. Whatever it is - and it will be very different for each organisation - more than ever, this is the time to ask for feedback and make changes that are truly empowering for your team and help them to be more self-directed.
A lot of us aren’t working side by side right now (and those that are are probably rushed off their feet most of the time, doing essential work.) Either way, it’s more challenging to be aware if someone’s mood is low or they’re struggling to cope. When we’re in the same physical space, we can use changes in observable behaviour as a trigger to take someone aside and ask how they’re doing. Now, we have no choice but to ask directly. So we should! Frequently!
This one’s pretty simple. Try using the phrase - ‘how are you doing today - mentally, physically and emotionally?’ This is going to be much more effective than a simple ‘how are you?’ There’s a few reasons for this:
- ‘Today’ - making your question time-bound acknowledges that feelings and moods are fleeting and will naturally fluctuate. You’re implicitly acknowledging that you care about how your team member is feeling today, and you’ll care tomorrow, and it’s ok if those feelings are different.
- Mentally, physically and emotionally, shows you care about your team member holistically and creates implicit permission to open up about their emotional wellbeing and mental health (even if that’s not needed today - you’re propping the door open for tomorrow).
- This question is much harder to respond to with a reflexive ‘i’m fine’. Asking about how someone is in this way might cause them to pause for a second, ground themselves in their body, and then give a more honest answer.
Being a good leader is all about getting to know your team - their needs, wishes, dreams, working preferences, boundaries - all of that good stuff. Try introducing readme’s or support plans to surface all of the unspoken and necessary things that are key to you being able to support your team members as individuals - and talk about these things, don’t file them in a drawer. It might be awkward to begin with, but it’s worth it. Sure, you probably will learn these things over time if you’re working with someone closely for the next 10 years or so, but a) realistically you probably won’t be, and b) no-one wants to be the potato in your GCSE osmosis experiment.
Humans are social animals. We are evolutionarily wired to seek out others and make them part of our tribe. Yet modern life (particularly modern urban life) does not make building community necessarily that easy. Encouraging people to find others to connect with and do something that impacts more than the company mission pays dividends - your people will feel happier, more connected and be more loyal as a result.
Give people time off to protest and organise to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Be aware that not everyone will want this - but they will appreciate the option. Do not, for the love of god, expect your Black employees to shoulder the burden of educating you or the team about systemic racism, or why this is not a moment but a movement, or about how to be a good ally. Try harder.
Consider giving time off for volunteering and helping people to find volunteering opportunities (some platforms that can help with this include furlonteer if you have team members who are furloughed, or Ethical Angel or Do-It, whatever the circumstances).
This shouldn’t be an ad hoc or one off effort, rather it should be something that sits within your company handbook and is signposted during onboarding and regularly talked about. You could also try organising team socials around social good. Get your team involved in mentoring or get involved yourself via initiatives like Foundervine. Create change at an organisational level by signing up for be a YSYS advocacy, for Founders Pledge, or becoming a B-Corp.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this piece - it’s just a snapshot, a starting point, a non-exclusive list of some of the ways in which you can create a kinder culture.
There is SO much out there if you want to create change. Let’s get going.