Watch: Mental health in the workplace—beyond basics

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Looking out for employee mental health has become table stakes for good employers. But once everyone is aligned with the idea that mental health matters in the workplace, what’s next?

Our Feb. 17 Quartz at Work (from anywhere) workshop, sponsored by Accenture, offered a variety of perspectives from expert navigators of the intersection between work and mental health.

Whether you’re a senior leader struggling with mental health overload or empathy burnout, a manager trying to balance performance with the overall mental health of your team, or an employee handling the impact of personal trauma or the compounding mental health effects of systemic racism, you’ll find advice and encouragement from our panelists.

Click the large image above for the complete replay, and read on for the highlights along with relevant resources throughout from Quartz and elsewhere to help you on your workplace mental health journey. Most of these resources are completely free to access, but should you encounter our paywall, please use the code QZEMAIL for a 50% discount on a full year of Quartz membership.

Avoiding empathy burnout as you make mental health a priority in your workplace

Melissa Bernstein, co-founder of the popular toy company Melissa & Doug, says she “grew up feeling that showing anything negative—anything human, anything dark—was bad. My mode of behaving was to never show a chink in my armor. That was the way that I led, too.”

But in her late 40s, after more than two decades as a CEO, she was overcome by her lifelong struggles with existential depression. “I kind of crumbled and had to surrender and say, ‘I can’t do this alone, this is who I am, I need help,’” she says. She realized that as a leader, “I had it wrong, and I was disabling others from truly showing me who they were.” And so she decided to go public with her illness in LifeLines, a book about her experience, which became the basis for a website devoted to well-being.

The liberating feeling didn’t last long, though, as thousands of people reached out to her in response, sharing their own experiences and seeking guidance. “I almost went under because of that emotional weight of carrying everyone else’s burden and wanting to help them so desperately,” she says. “I developed immediate compassion fatigue.” Eventually she found a balance between self-care and empathy, which sounds philosophical but involved very practical decisions, such as reducing the number of people she would reach out to about mental health issues from twelve or fifteen in a day down to a maximum of four.

Further reading and resources

Thinking about mental health from the standpoint of teams

Mental health is typically viewed at the individual level, with challenges stemming from each person’s unique circumstances. That’s too limiting a view when thinking about mental health in the workplace, says Leah Weiss, who teaches compassionate leadership at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and is a co-founder of Skylyte, a consultancy focused on the health and productivity of hybrid teams.

“Because we work in the increment of teams, it’s critical that we do this work [of evaluating and addressing mental health] as teams,” she says, “and that’s been a glaring omission I think really for even the most team-based industries to date.”

Surveys are useful for measurement, but they must be followed with action, she says, “because if you ask people what is happening but then you don’t respond as a leader, then people get survey fatigue, and then they don’t believe leadership is going to do something about it.”

For teams balancing tight deadlines and demanding clients with a stressed-out workforce that always seems to be running low on bandwidth, Weiss recommends remembering the cost of absenteeism and employee churn and working teams like an Olympian might. “They’re not pushing the same way 365 days of the year,” she says, noting that training typically gets dialed down after the big event. “Maybe we can’t afford to give [employees] vacations after every sprint, but can we take them down from 120% to 90% for a week or two?” she says.

Structured rest and rejuvenation are key things to coordinate at the team level, she says. Taking a break “is not something I, Leah, can decide to do on my own if I don’t have support around me to do that,” she says.

Further reading and resources

Leaning on colleagues who are trained to care

Consulting giant Accenture, which has more than 600,000 employees and a range of mental health benefits, has found particular success with a mental health allyship program. Nearly 10,000 Accenture employees have volunteered for training, so that they can form “a community of support” for colleagues in distress, says Tamarah Duperval-Brownlee, Accenture’s chief health officer.

“This is not replacing what a healthcare provider is able to do— a therapist or other—but really recognizing that as your colleague, as your co-worker sitting alongside of you, I see you, I recognize you and the struggle,” she says. “With proper training, it definitely is a powerhouse that can be employed in many organizations,” including smaller companies, she adds.

Other strategies Accenture has undertaken in recent years include sharing stories, and data, about leaders in the organization who have faced mental health challenges, as well as helping people to set boundaries and create new patterns of work. With all of these efforts, Duperval-Brownlee says, “it really does start with a clear vision and intentionality of the senior leaders.”

Further reading and resources

Recognizing the impact of structural racism on mental health

The year before the covid-19 pandemic began, the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) released a toolkit on race and mental health at work, offering a guide for employers that want to promote well-being across their organizations.

Magda Boulabiza, an ENAR advocacy officer based in Brussels, says addressing the role of racism in mental health requires nothing less than a transformation of organizational structures, with a rethink about what it means to do good work and how to provide flexibility.

A starting point for this, she says, is to think about racism as an institutional issue rather than an interpersonal one. “When you think about racism as something that is only between people and a cultural issue, you lack the structural solutions…and the tools you have will not have an actual effect, positively, in your organization,” she says.

Some of the strategies she advises:

  • Promise (and display) zero tolerance for harassment and discrimination
  • Shift from systems of individual accountability to team accountability (it tamps down stress and competition without hurting output)
  • Facilitate access to specialized support for “those who are subjected to racism and are therefore suffering mental health consequences”
  • Encourage employees to disclose mental health issues—and don’t hold it against them—as a way of destigmatizing the issue
  • Create or provide access to networks like employee resource groups for people of color

Further reading and resources

Understanding how trauma affects us at work

Clinical psychologist Yared Alemu is the founder of TQIntelligence, which makes software that helps detect mental health issues in at-risk children. He spoke to the audience about what happens to the brain when you’ve experienced trauma. “You’re sipping a poison that does not have a taste and that you cannot smell, but by the time you find out you’ve been impacted by it, you’re already activated by it,” he says.

Trauma, he explains, is “primarily a physiological experience before it becomes an emotional and psychological one,” he explains. It impacts three parts of the brain “that are essential for functioning well when you’re at work,” including the frontal lobe, which controls executive functioning; the amygdala, which has a pivotal role in the formation of memories; and the hippocampus, which is involved in learning as well as memory formation and retrieval.

“If these three parts of the brain…are impacted by trauma,” he says, “what shows up as being a work issue is actually an issue of mental health.”

Further reading and resources