By Maryam Meddin, CEO of The Soke, a private clinic integrating mental healthcare, wellbeing, support and performance coaching.
In these challenging and unprecedented times, what particular steps should business leaders be considering as an aid to transitioning from where they were in March 2020 to where they might find themselves in September?
Last week, on a video call with the COO of a well-known city firm I was told that “having been trained to spot the signs”, their organisation was fully equipped to look after the behavioural wellbeing of their staff in-house. In fact, this business leader told me – with all the humility of a 17th century French aristocrat – such was the success of their mental health programme that nobody ever seemed to need it.
The words were still hanging in the Zoom air between us when, to my surprise, I noticed on the right side of my split screen the arrival of an email requesting further information on corporate mental health, sent by the HR Director of the same firm. What was particularly striking was that this HR Director was also on the video call, nodding silently as her colleague waxed lyrical about the benefits of a programme that requires staff to divulge their mental health issues to senior partners. As drama in such situations go, it could only have been heightened if she’d mouthed “HELP” at me through the monitor.
Notwithstanding the comedic values of this entertaining half hour, it was like hearing a boss say that his staff didn’t drink from the water cooler because nobody in his firm ever got thirsty. It will no doubt come as news to him to know that just as thirst is not indicative of physical weakness, a corporate mental health plan is not a concession to the psychological fragility of a workforce. On the contrary, it shows an organisation that values its people and seeks to build on strengths and overcome weaknesses in the most human and humane way possible. Above all, it symbolises mutual commitment in a way that the transactional nature of an employment contract does not.
Thankfully, much of the financial sector has in recent years made a pointed effort to evolve from the outdated machismo culture of ‘play hard’ as the only counterpoint to ‘work hard’. Increasingly, forward-thinking leaders are adopting a more enlightened attitude towards the needs of their workforce and striving to promote a positive corporate culture in which behavioural health is a key component.
So, in these challenging and unprecedented times, what particular steps should business leaders be considering as an aid to transitioning from where they were in March 2020 to where they might find themselves in September?
The first answer to this question is another question: who’s looking after the leader? The majority of those at the helm of corporations, in a variety of sizes and sectors, are at some
point likely to have to make painful decisions – sometimes at the expense of employees, others at the expense of suppliers, partners or other stakeholders. To prepare for the arduous tasks that lay ahead, leaders themselves must be on the receiving end of support that equips them with the tools they need to be both resilient and compassionate. There is no glory in making difficult decisions with strength, if the trade-off is detachment from your corporate values and your people. Employers must, therefore, be willing to walk the mental health walk, recognising that their actions play a central role in determining the culture to which employees will return, and through engagement with which they – and the firm – are expected to rise and prosper. Step 1: get support.
Once the culture of an organisation has shifted from what pre-existed to its Covid-influenced form, the new landscape must be one that can accommodate and sustain the journey ahead for the entire workforce. This is where the bulk of the weight falls on the shoulders of the HR department. It is these individuals who are expected to develop and implement a wellbeing agenda appropriate to the needs of both employer and employee, whilst fostering the evolved culture and possible new make-up of an organisation. All this they must do whilst simultaneously ensuring that the new agenda is outcome-focused and that its results can be assessed swiftly and painlessly for the benefit of a C-suite navigating unchartered waters. It will be a tall order for an already overworked department to tackle so momentous a task without the aid of skilled offsite support providing both the necessary outlet for the HR department’s own decompression, as well as the external perspective and strategic expertise to craft, procure and establish an integrated, goal-oriented plan that is transparent, offering value to all stakeholders. Step 2: seek expertise.
Among the features that must factor into the new constitution of a post-Covid firm is a strong Leadership Development programme. With the job losses that already have or are likely to feature widely in all sectors, internal promotions will be expected to fill the gaps, leaving individuals without the necessary tools or experience suddenly in charge of teams and projects. A strong, tailored programme, built on a foundation of trust and confidentiality, and delivered by an external, independent provider, will enable these individuals to receive the practical and psychological support they need without fearing the consequences of revealing their perceived weaknesses to colleagues whose personal interests may not be aligned.
It is often a similar case in high-performing environments where individuals with different areas of expertise are brought together to form what is hoped will be a collaborative team, charged with either acquiring a much sought after deal/client, or with delivering a successful project outcome. There will be few people reading this, I’m sure, who will not have their own tales to tell about difficult personalities, or team members reacting differently to rising stress levels, making what should have been a smooth, structured process – from the relationship perspective at least, given that everyone is “on the same team” – challenging and, sometimes, a failed process. This, in most cases, can be avoided if said team is provided
with the appropriate behavioural support in the form of regular group “supervision”. Facilitated by objective professional supervisors, this equips team members with the tools to effectively manage the changing dynamic and relationships within the group over the course of a project, and to reach the desired goal painlessly. Step 3: facilitate training & supervision.
Regardless of which division or group is being considered, if leaders are to successfully steer their firms and its people through the rough terrains created by the pandemic, they must buy into the notion that their attitude towards the mental wellbeing of their workforce can be a determinate factor in how many crews they’ve had to change on the journey and how scathed or unscathed they all are when they reach their destination.
A sustainable, confident organisation is one made up of people who are literally and metaphorically cared for and whose leaders have practiced emotional intelligence in forming a strong culture, protected and promoted by a loyal workforce.
Let me conclude by returning to my original analogy: everybody gets thirsty – it’s the leader’s job to make sure the water cooler is fit for purpose.