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Welcome to The JoyPowered® Workspace Podcast, where we talk about embracing joy in the workplace. I’m Susan White, owner of Susan Tinder White Consulting. With me is my dear friend and co-host, JoDee Curtis, owner of Purple Ink, an HR consulting firm.
Our topic today is mental health in the workplace. As business and HR leaders, our recognizing and figuring out the right support to make available when a staff member is struggling with mental health can really make the difference in that person’s work performance, attendance, relationships with coworkers, ability and willingness to stay at your company, and in their personal life. As we record this particular episode, adding to all of the normal stressors in the workplace and in life, we are in a worldwide pandemic, which has created a lot of new uncertainties, which can upset anyone’s mental health. People have begun getting vaccines, but it’s going to be a long road until we have this health crisis under control. The Mental Health Index: U.S. Worker Edition October 2020 Update reported that the risk for general anxiety disorder is 51% higher now than before the pandemic began and the risk for depressive disorder is 65% higher than pre-COVID. So we asked a guest who is knowledgeable on how to deal with mental health issues at work, because, JoDee, it’s really not my area of expertise.
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Our guest is Dr. Paul Pendler, Assistant Professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and clinical psychologist who has a renowned private practice consulting with Fortune 500 companies as they navigate through mental health issues that arise in the workplace. I had the pleasure of working with Paul when we both worked at a major global financial institution. Paul was a trusted advisor wherever I or my team faced workplace safety concerns due to an employee’s erratic actions or really any employee situation involving behavioral health issues and we needed expert advice. Paul, we are delighted that you’re here with us.
Yes, thanks so much.
What are the most common mental health issues employers are seeing surface today?
Well, so today has to be framed in the context of the pandemic. So for the past year, I think what we’re seeing is obviously very different than what we used to see. So I guess I’ll go backwards. Historically, I think what we see have been people struggling with their mood, which impacts their overall productivity, their…what’s called “presenteeism,” that they just don’t come to work or they’re just not able to work for whatever reason. And it’s often, usually, because they have an affective disorder or depression. The…taken more to extremes, I think some some businesses have also been struggling with people across all professional spectrums who have actually gotten to a point even more dire, where they feel suicidal or just feel like their life is hopeless and without meaning. So that, I think that has been around for a while, generally a managing anxiety and sort of stress has probably been always present in any corporation. And I think that that has been actually on an increase in larger corporations as we’ve become more metric driven about productivity and things like that. So that’s pre-March. Since March last year, most businesses, I think, are really struggling with the sense of social isolation employees have and how that’s converting to productivity or lack of productivity. And I think, also, managers are really at a loss right now as how do I engage with somebody that I have concerns about if I’m only looking through a camera? And what are the ways I do that? And I think that’s more prominent right now, in this current pandemic state, that people have really hit multiple walls every few months to say I don’t know how much more I can keep going. And then I think managers are struggling with that, I don’t know what to say to them to help keep them going.
What do you see managers doing? What…what mistakes are they making, when a situation occurs that is mental health related?
I actually think that because of the pandemic and COVID, there’s been this wonderful opportunity in the private sector that the idea of what’s personal versus professional has really come down, because often you’re seeing me in my…in my home office, or you’re seeing…hearing my dog or all sorts of things. So the opportunity right now is people can be way more authentic and way more genuine. And I think what managers…we’ve trained managers very well that when somebody mentions a medical situation, all the alarms go off that says, “I’m not supposed to talk.” But this is a human event. And the human event says, “What do you mean you’re not doing well? Can you tell me a little more? What is that like?” Ask for more information. And so managers who are genuine and authentic and can even really sort of share from their own experience…that’s been the greatest opportunity, I think, that’s happening right now. I don’t know. It’ll be interesting, once we get all get back to work, does that door just get shut again? But that’s the greatest, I think the greatest problem right now is, managers forget that this is a human event, that you’re noticing somebody doesn’t seem like they feel good, and that, why not just talk to them about it.
One of the things that I often notice, when a manager suspects that there might be a mental health issue, they just want hands off. I mean, the natural reactions are frightened. They’re so scared. As opposed to if someone shares they have cancer, or they have something that the manager can…can get their hands around or relate to. They’re so much more empathetic. I feel like, at least in my experience, when it’s mental health they’re frightened. Does that ring true for you, Paul?
Yeah, some companies have really done a great job introducing breaking the stigma about talking about the fact that sometimes I struggle, and…and sort of normalizing that. Similar to how do I live with cancer or, you know, how do I live with a chronic medical condition. I think the only way for mental health that that will continue to be advanced is if senior leaders out themselves and talk about their own struggle, which is still, I think, unheard of, unfortunately. But the companies where that has happened, they’ve really created this culture of “it’s okay to talk about it.” I think human nature is such that, well, if you tell me you have cancer, I know me talking about it isn’t going to get you sicker. But if you talk about your mental health condition or an emotional condition, I think I’m afraid naturally that, “Oh, well, what if I say the wrong thing? Am I going to throw them over the edge?”, which is not the case, actually. But that’s, I think, often, really the bigger piece, is people are afraid that’s a hot potato. I just don’t know what to say, or I think I’m going to make it worse. And you’re not. Somebody just needs to hear that you heard them.
Yeah. You know, Paul, I’m wondering…I personally perceive that maybe one positive thing that’s come through the pandemic is that there are more conversations around mental health and there’s more discussions around mental health, because companies realize it’s more of a factor than ever before. And maybe that’s not even true. Maybe it’s not even more prevalent, but we’re noticing that it might be more prevalent. Do you see that too, or is that just my perception?
Again, I think that because of so many companies that are working remotely, the…the sort of line between your personal world and your work world is lower. So there is a blurring. I think that what what binds us all as a workforce right now is we’re all suffering through grief, and it’s the grief that’s actually allowing things to be talked about. So I don’t know that prior mental health topics are being raised. I think the thing that’s being raised right now, or at least that I’ve been trying, in groups I’ve been running, is to sort of name it as grief. That you’re grieving what used to be. You’re grieving not being able to control the future. You’re grieving, perhaps, really, loss of loved ones. And that all of those things, the more you’re given permission for them to be talked about, then you’re at least creating a climate where people can talk more openly about what they’re feeling.
Can you share some guidance on what an HR person or business leader should consider if they suspect a staff member may be considering harming themselves or others?
The biggest thing is talking about being suicidal or thinking about harming yourself. And in fact, maybe, I think the first thing managers and HR people need to get comfortable, is they should be able to say the word “suicidal” without feeling like the ground’s shaking under their feet. It’s…the more we just normalize it, like upset stomach or nausea or something, then we’re creating the idea that it’s okay to talk about it. So the…the biggest thing is talking about it will not send somebody to do something rashly to hurt themselves. Talking about it actually is more the often the opposite effect, that somebody actually will pause enough to think, oh, you really want to hear. So that’s the biggest thing that people need, to come up with language, a script, where they genuinely say, “I’ve been concerned about you. I’ve been worried about you.” So they start with compassion, and then they really do need to develop a script that says, you know, “With everything that’s going on for you, have you ever thought about, you know, life’s just not worth living?” or “Have you thought about hurting yourself?”. And any number of those types of, sort of, phrases opens the conversation. So that a person…the employee may or may not say, “Oh, no, I never would do that.” Or someone…often what we’ve seen is they’ll say, “Well, yeah, I have been thinking about that?” And then your next response needs to be “Well, tell me more about it.” So that’s the second step that I think, unfortunately, if we train managers and HR people to ask the question, then they need to know there’s two or three other questions that they have to ask after. And if they get afraid, then the interaction may not go as well.
And what…what is step three on that? So if you get the person talking more about it, or talking about real thoughts, do you contact 911? Or do you…like, what is that third thing that the business leader does when someone’s opened up to them, they’re seriously considering it?
The way it works in this country, at least, is the police or paramedics will always go out to evaluate somebody under what’s called a wellness check. So you you just call your local 911 or find the local place where they’re located and say that there’s somebody that I’m concerned may…may want to harm themselves, can we conduct a wellness check? Once you give that information to law enforcement or paramedics, it’s their responsibility to make a decision to do something about it. So you’ve kind of…you’ve done your first part. I think what you can do before that…not every interaction requires you to do a wellness check. I think the first question after somebody says, “Yeah, I have thought about it,” is to say, “What have you thought about?” because if they just are saying, “Well, I just really think life’s hopeless. I don’t know anything.”, you have…it begs the next question. “Well, have you thought about doing something?” and “What would it do?”. Generally, the criteria to activate a wellbeing check or wellness check has to do with the urgency, the imminent threat of doing something, and they’ll…people will tell you, and you know, in our country, unfortunately, with weapons, you have to ask about that, that if somebody says, “Well, you know, I have guns at home,” that’s probably grounds to call the paramedics and police and have them evaluate. And then it’s their decision, so they make the decision once they meet somebody what to do or not do.
What are companies doing – at least the ones you think are doing a good job on this – what are they doing to support their staff through the current pandemic, as well as just normal mental health concerns?
Well, I mean, a lot of the major companies have created sort of all this internet-based resources about how do you manage working remotely, how do you manage physical movement, how do you manage your mood…so the companies that are posting those things have done really wonderful things, versus directing them to somebody else. That, I certainly would encourage larger companies to…it’s not enough to direct somebody someplace else. Put it on your own homepage. Create your own COVID survival page where people have to go, be it about how to get tested, or as well as how do they deal with their children, how do they deal with schooling, things like that. I think the other thing that a smaller group of companies are doing is finding opportunities for people to talk to each other about how they’re managing, because I think this is basically a traumatic event for all of us, and what we know in mental health about traumatic events are, there are some core things that affect everybody, and it’s important to be able to get that out there to people so that people can share how they’re feeling or reacting, so that often their experience is “Oh, I didn’t realize other people feel the same way.” That’s really the biggest piece that has to happen. That isn’t happening as much. I mean, I think we’ve done a great job sort of directing people to get information and things like that, but the next step is creating a culture of people sharing more openly about what their day-to-day struggles are. For example, I lead groups of employees, and it’s not unusual that week to week, I forget what day of the week it is. It’s pretty common, at least one day, one week of…usually, once a week, I forget what day of the week it is, which, because I don’t have much markings to sort of remind me. And I’m always surprised when I share that that other people nod, and they felt embarrassed to admit that, but once they heard other people, then they feel better. Because there’s a…there is a real universality of how all of us are dealing with this.
Beyond the pandemic, how can employers create a supportive mental health environment in, you know, quote, unquote, “normal times” for their staff members? What are some tips that you have for them?
I think that employers should embrace the concept of employee assistance and wellness programs and sort of find a way…the same way they work with their health plans and things like that around medical conditions, they really need to make sure they’re also working it around emotional adjustment concerns and…. So that’s one. If I would really be loftier, I think that they should aim higher and aim for a way in which employees can talk about what they deal with, and create a corporate culture where people can talk about what it’s like for me to have physical challenges, for example, so why can’t you also have seminars or webpages where people describe, this is me managing with my anxiety, and that you create a way in which people…you create it which…that managers realize that somebody leading with a mental health condition does not mean they’re going to get written up for it, or it doesn’t mean that there’s a consequence for it. That would be where I would wish we would get headed to sort of normalize this idea.
Is there any other advice you’d like to leave us with today that we haven’t asked about yet?
I’m still sort of generally more focused around COVID and the pandemic, and I think really, what I don’t hear enough and hope to hear more from senior leadership is people need to remember that you have to have hope, and that hope has been sometimes in short supply, and that I think it’s important almost every week that there is a message of hope. And then I think the other piece, which has been a pet peeve of mine, is what’s really needed now a year into this is – it’s the sort of anti-toilet-paper-hoarding model – is that what we really need to do is not be hoarding and thinking of ourselves, but be thinking about others. So that even more we need to do that, and if…if that can come from the top down, to create a climate of, you got to have hope and know that things are going to be better, and that also, we need to look out for each other. Those are the pieces I think that has to happen to keep going, because things are gonna get better.
You might really be on to something there with this anti-toilet-paper model. I like it.
Yeah, it’s…it’s the epitome of what happened. There’s a…I guess that’s where I’ll leave it. There’s an African term in Zulu, called ubuntu – U-B-U-N-T-U. And it’s not a term that’s part of our culture, but what the African model is, is that everybody is interrelated and that my existence is completely tied up in other people’s existence. And so that’s the antithesis of only buying toilet paper for yourself, basically. So that’s what’s really needed more than ever.
That makes such good sense. That’s good advice. So, Paul, I don’t know if you are accepting new clients or not, but if someone’s listening who is a leader of a business, and they are looking for an advisor on mental health, is there a way to contact you?
Yeah, sort of the best way would be through just electronic mail, the email that I think you have, Paul at Paul Pendler dot net, and go from there, and I could talk to them and see what they’re looking for and see if I’m the best suited or direct them some places.
That’s perfect. Well, Paul, this has been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for sharing your insights with us. Very, very helpful.
Good. Thank you.
Susan, our listener question today comes from a listener who completed a SHRM credit evaluation on a previous episode. They asked, “How can I get the buy-in for HR initiatives from top management?”
Gosh, well, I have a few ideas. I’m sure you do, too, JoDee. First of all, I’m a big believer in building a business case that demonstrates for senior leadership that there’s going to be a return on the investment. In fact, we did a other podcast on this topic that was called “How to Build an Effective Business Case” that we launched back on May 7 of 2018. I think it will give you some good ideas to how do you actually put together a business case, so that your leaders will listen to you, hopefully, with some respect.
Another is to think about framing up any HR initiative as a business initiative. And I really think this is important, that we look not only in our HR silo, but thinking about what are we doing for the organization as a whole, not just HR.
I would build personal relationships with top management to the degree that I can, because we’re going to earn our credibility, obviously, through performing, but we want to make sure that they know us as credible people, as business thinkers, and so that when we do bring forth an HR initiative, they really do know that we understand the organization, we understand the business, and we’re bringing forth ideas that are in alignment with the strategic objectives or the mission, vision, values of the organization.
I think even directly aligning those, you know, making that case for, here’s the strategic initiative, and here are some HR initiatives that support that. Right? As much as we can make that alignment together to show, hey, we understand what the strategic initiatives are, and here’s what we can do with them, and we might, you know, also bring research or benchmarking data to support our recommendation along with it.
You know, I think most executive leadership teams are data-driven. If you can bring some data that supports your recommendation, I think it’s going to give you some more credibility. And I guess the final idea that I have is, think about is there some business leader that can serve as a champion for you to really advocate to the business that this idea we’re bringing forth really makes sense, perhaps in their business unit, and it should make sense in whole organization. It can really help to have somebody giving a testimonial at the table that “this HR initiative is going to work well in my group, so why don’t we think about it organization-wide?”.
All right, it’s time for in the news. humanresourcestoday.com posted a guest article in December 2020 entitled, “The Benefits of Bringing Pets to Work.” Okay, JoDee, I know it’s weird that I picked this one.
If our listeners only knew how weird it is that you picked this one.
I am not a real animal lover. I gotta – quick side story for our listeners. I’m visiting right now my son and his wife and my grandson, and they have a dog that is kind of my granddog I’m very fond of, but they have a guest dog here this week. Really big dog. Oh my goodness. We went to the bark park yesterday and I thought I was gonna cry. That’s…it’s the stuff that nightmares are made of. Lots of dogs all running around and you’re inside of a fenced-in facility with them. It’s crazy. But back to the story, which is bringing your pets to work every day. That is really an incentive to an awful lot of the workforce. JoDee, I’ll never forget my first lunch at your house, when you…with your two big dogs. Your dogs were so tall, they were at…their heads were the same level as the table, so as I ate I had these two dogs’ faces staring at me. I truly am a reluctant pet person, but I do pay attention when I see information that affirms organizations’ policies that encourage bringing pets to work. So let’s talk about this article. This article cites research that Banfield conducted that says 8% of workplaces are pet-friendly today. Eight percent. I don’t know why, I would have thought it had been much higher than that.
75 to 95% of those companies’ employees rate their work-life balance as outstanding.
Wow. What a difference.
They’re getting a return on their investment. So here are the most common benefits of allowing bringing pets to work.
It reduces work stress. Right? The International Journal of Workplace Health Management says workers who bring their pets to work were found to have a reduced stress level than workers who did not have pets.
I think that explains why I get stressed. Number two, it improves workplace relationships. It can be a good source of connecting between people, talking about the dog, people who are interested in your dog, it kind of brings forth more of an authentic relationship.
Yeah. It can improve your work life balance, too. I know when I was working in the office more often, I’d be running back and forth to run home to take my dogs out for a walk, and so if I had them right with me, it would make it easier for me.
Ah. The CDC reports that you have improved health status. It can actually lower your triglycerides, cholesterol, and lower blood pressure when pets are present.
Wow. It can increase office attendance.
Yeah, there’s fewer worries about pets, and so people can concentrate more on the job.
Yeah. This one is my favorite. It can increase creativity of the mind. The need to walk your pet during the day gets you walking, which studies from Stanford and Johnson & Johnson says heightens creativity. I tell you, Susan, I teach a course on creative problem solving, and I talk about that one, specifically, all the time. I think I was never used to taking a break in the middle of the day, and now, when I walk my dogs, I can guarantee you it makes me more creative.
That’s wonderful. The study also said a pet can improve your company’s image. When you’re pet-friendly, people tend to think more of you.
Yeah. And as the statistics you suggested earlier, it creates a higher overall job satisfaction.
And finally, it contributes to flexibility. So people feel that they’ve got some more control, because they’re able to take their pets out when they need to, and they may be more open to overtime work if they have the…their animals with them.
So, okay, JoDee, fair enough. This news causes me to “paws,” okay, P-A-W-S, and rethink my reluctant pet headset. So who knows what the future will bring for me and animals.
Well, thanks for listening today and make it a JoyPowered® day.
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