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How can I prioritize my employees’ well-being?

Four key takeaways every leader needs to understand about mental health and the workplace

It's hard to believe, but this month marks three years since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

As we continue to navigate the pandemic and its aftermath, one key issue has emerged as a top priority for leaders: the mental health of our employees.

Now more than ever, where and how we work has a tremendous impact on our overall well-being.

We always knew that, but the pandemic has shed new light on the relationship between work and our mental health.

In fact, that’s the subject of a recent report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Surgeon General. The report, titled Mental Health and the Workplace: A Call to Action, highlights the key areas leaders should focus on to improve the well-being of their employees.

As I was reading through it, I was struck by the incredible opportunity we as leaders have to create workplace cultures that prioritize mental health. In fact, so many of the recommendations in this report align with principles I see great leaders use every day to build strong, capable teams.

If you want to be the kind of leader who is known for creating a healthy, positive workplace environment, then keep reading! I’m highlighting my four biggest takeaways from this report for you.

Takeaway #1: The mental health struggle is real.

No doubt you already know this, but employee well-being has taken a huge hit in the last few years.

A 2021 study found 76% of workers in the United States reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition – which was a sharp increase of 17 percentage points in just two years.

In that same study, 84% of respondents said that at least one workplace factor negatively affected their mental health.

As leaders, we have to understand the reality of what’s happening in our workplaces so we can create a plan to address it.

When employees are struggling with their overall well-being, the negative effects cascade quickly. Workers become less productive and more prone to mistakes. Collaboration and creativity come to a halt. Turnover and absenteeism skyrocket as all that chronic stress creates higher risks for health issues like anxiety, depression, diabetes, heart disease, and more.

That doesn’t sound like the kind of environment anyone would want to work in. And in my experience, that type of culture doesn’t produce great business results, either!

But here’s the good news: the American Psychology Association found that a whopping 81% of people said they will seek out workplaces that support mental health.

When I read that statistic, I see an opportunity. The leaders who step up now and prioritize employee well-being will be the ones who build the strongest teams going forward.

Takeaway #2: People need more autonomy.

The pandemic blurred the lines between home and work. How many Zoom calls got adorably interrupted by kids and dogs during those work-from-home months?

Those blurred lines had both positive and negative effects. On the one hand, we were all constantly reminded that employees aren’t just employees. They’re whole people who have needs, commitments, and dreams outside of work.

But on the other hand, many workers have experienced exhaustion and burnout due to the lack of clear boundaries between work and non-work hours.

When people feel overloaded and torn between their work commitments and their personal lives, their well-being suffers. They’re at higher risk of cardiovascular disease, digestive issues, poor sleep quality, substance use, anxiety, and depression.

So what can you do as a leader to help your team handle both their work commitments and personal lives without one overwhelming the other? 

To improve the overall health and productivity of your employees, you need to prioritize worker autonomy.

Autonomy in this case means giving employees the ability to make decisions, problem-solve, and innovate in their work.

According to the report, “organizations that increase worker autonomy … and whose workplaces provide greater flexibility … see workers who are more likely to succeed and retain staff for longer.”

When you entrust the people on your team with the right level of freedom and independence to do their jobs, they’re better able to manage all their commitments, both at work and at home. They have the flexibility they need to calibrate the balance that’s ideal for them.

Find ways to give each person on your team more autonomy. You’ll not only cut down on the stress and burnout that affect well-being, but you’ll also create more job satisfaction and engagement overall.

Just remember to set expectations and goals, so they have the clarity they need to take ownership of their work.

Takeaway #3: Recognition helps people manage stress.

People want to know they matter at work. That’s a key finding of this report – and I wholeheartedly agree!

To build a culture that’s healthy and strong, you have to show each and every person how vital they are to the overall mission.

A simple way to do this is by giving regular and specific recognition.

Recognition can take many forms. It can be a simple thank-you note, public acknowledgment in a team meeting, or a bonus or promotion for a job well done.

As the report states, “When people feel appreciated, recognized, and engaged by their supervisors and coworkers, their sense of value and meaning increases, as well as their capacity to manage stress.”

In fact, this study in the Harvard Business Review found that people who receive recognition are more likely to turn around and give recognition to others. It creates a virtuous cycle where people look for the best in their teammates and cheer each other on.

When you contrast that with a toxic, “cutthroat” environment that deflates and drains people, it’s easy to see how recognition is a key part of your strategy for creating a healthy culture.

Takeaway #4: Prioritize opportunities for growth.

For many of us, these last few years have been all about survival. We’ve had to pivot, re-invent, and get creative just to make ends meet. If a particular initiative wasn’t mission-critical, it often fell by the wayside.

This report reveals that one of the biggest casualties has been programs for employee development and growth.

It cites a recent study where only 59% of the large and mid-sized companies they surveyed had prioritized worker learning and growth over the past three years.

That’s understandable, but it’s not sustainable.

Now is the time to show your employees that your organization cares about their growth and development.

Without those opportunities to keep learning, people feel stagnant and ineffective.

Find ways to give your people a chance to stretch themselves by providing mentorship programs, individual development plans, or special projects. Opportunities like these create that boost of optimism and momentum that you only get when you’re growing.

For an even easier option, give everyone on your team free access to my leadership training video class, Taking People With You. Now more than ever, I believe everyone should have access to effective leadership training!

As we continue to navigate the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever for leaders to prioritize employee well-being and create a healthy work environment.

This includes recognizing the reality of what's happening in the workplace, prioritizing autonomy, providing regular recognition, and creating opportunities for growth.

And of course, that starts with the example YOU set! There’s no better way for you to show employees that well-being matters than by doing what you need to do to prioritize your own mental wellness.

Together, you and your employees can thrive both as people and as employees – and that will make your whole organization more engaged and successful.

March 21, 2023