Just as managers have a responsibility to make sure employees are working in physically safe conditions, they also have a responsibility to provide emotional support and to foster a work environment conducive for all to thrive.
The COVID-19 global pandemic shown a light on health and safety practices at work. Across industries, regulations were put in place to mitigate the spread of disease and protect workers. For those with preexisting conditions or other characteristics that made them more susceptible to a dangerous case of COVID, accommodations were made. For the general population, capacity limits in public spaces, mask requirements, remote work accessibility, and school closures were enacted to keep people safe.
While it’s important to note that there have been equity and economic repercussions from these changes, the general line of thinking, that if there is a threat to the safety and well-being of workers, corporations have a responsibility to take action, is relevant.
Beyond COVID, one in five US adults has a mental illness. 85% of workers feel that their workplace stressors affect their mental health. 56% of workers disagree that their work environment is safe for those with mental illnesses. 4 in 5 employees feel emotionally drained from work. These statistics paint a clear picture: while we’ve progressed leaps and bounds to protect workers’ physical selves, there is more to do to protect workers' emotional selves.
Much of the onus to provide emotional support in the workplace is on managers. To be clear, managers should never attempt to or be required to treat mental illness, and there are many causes for emotional drain, burnout, and workplace stress. Regardless, because managers oversee humans with varied emotions on a day-to-day basis, they have a responsibility to optimize their work environment and create a culture where emotional safety benefits those with and without diagnosed ailments.
Strategies to Build Emotional Support
The thing about emotions is that most people aren’t comfortable expressing them or talking about them, though everyone feels them. Jobs demand that employees feel a range of emotions - anger, excitement, joy, fear - so everyone has to learn how to navigate both positive, and of course, negative feelings.
A new promotion, a rude comment from a co-worker, a shift to remote work - all of these emotional situations bring stress and discomfort. Discomfort can breed growth, but only when complemented by support. A lack of emotional and functional support produces an environment where work life and mental health conflict.
Building layers of emotional support in the workplace can help employees handle and grow from the myriads of stressful or uncomfortable situations that will inevitably occur.
Managers Must Regularly Check In with Employees
The only way to understand what employees need is to ask them - regularly. Checking in with employees is pivotal for making sure they feel acknowledged and respected, monitoring workplace stress, and providing emotional support.
There are three important considerations to keep in mind when setting up a check-in structure: cadences, topics, and active listening.
The appropriate cadences for check-ins should be decided at the team level, initially, and then on a case-by-case basis. Teams made up of busy hourly employees who may not always be on the same shift as their direct manager would likely settle into a different cadence than a corporate team who shares an office. On either team, new team members, team members who need more support, or team members who are working on important projects might need to be checked-in with more frequently than others. This process should not be too prescriptive or rigid; it should mold to the needs of teams and individual employees.
Topic areas for check-ins will differ, but a few areas to always touch on include professional development, current projects, health and well-being, and team development. Check-ins should not become stagnant meetings with a set agenda, or become solely about performance; they are meant to bolster the manager-employee relationship, so if there isn’t variety and timeliness, this goal won’t be accomplished.
Finally, the best check-in cadence with exquisitely written questions means nothing if both parties aren’t listening to each other, or if insights gleaned from check-ins don’t actualize. Managers have a responsibility to be present during check-ins and to follow-up on relevant comments. These sessions should be cumulative, so if in one meeting an employee mentions they could use a mentor at the company, by the next meeting the manager should offer mentor suggestions. If a manager asks their employee to better communicate project timelines, then the employee should actively try to do better.
Overall, check-ins can be the functional backbone of building an emotionally supportive environment if managers invest in the process, and give their people the space to ask for what they need.
Managers prioritizing the well-being of their employees is quite a hot topic in the HR world and there is good reason. Individuals becoming high performing at the expense of getting good rest, spending time with their families, enjoying their hobbies, or feeling energized at work should no longer be the norm. When employees feel they have to abandon their health and well-being in order to perform at a level adequate for the workplace, there will be burnout, there will be high levels of stress, and there will be a negative working environment.
To combat this downward spiral, managers have to build a culture where well-being is prioritized. To do this, managers should ask about the health of their employees during check-ins, should never glorify employees who work longer hours, and should model appropriate behavior for their people.
By including questions about health and well-being in regular check-ins, employees learn that their managers care not just about what they produce, but also about how they feel. By refusing to publicly praise employees who work overly long hours, managers keep those who are already performing well from feeling like they must always do more. By modeling appropriate behavior, managers allow their employees to prioritize their own well-being because they can see that their leader does the same.
Be Flexible and Allow For Flexibility
Life happens. World events happen. Family emergencies happen.
People can not work the same schedule day-in and day-out for years on end and maintain the utmost productivity at every moment. This unrealistic and impersonal expectation catalyzes burnout and makes for a difficult working environment for those with a mental illness who may need flexibility. It is important to understand that allowing for flexibility and reducing work expectations do not go hand-in-hand. This is a bias that leads many managers to a strict approach, but building emotional support into the workplace requires managers to check their biases, set realistic expectations for each individual employee, and to be flexible.
Even for those without a distinct ailment, not everyone is productive or creative at the same times of day. Work hours are often standardized for all employees, but when possible, allowing employees to work the schedule that best suits their natural rhythms could alleviate the stress of feeling ‘on’ at inopportune times and extinguish the guilt that comes with not feeling productive when co-workers might be. Quality work being accomplished on time should be prioritized over when that work gets completed.
While some might say that these concepts are good in theory but could lead to worse performance in real life, this is where the strength of the manager-employee relationship comes into play. There are some employees who may need a more rigid schedule, but there are others that operate at a similar or even better level when given freedom. It is up to managers to co-create time management and scheduling with their people. This co-creation gives employees the room to say what works and what doesn’t, and it gives managers an opportunity to focus their attention on the employees who need it the most.
Help Employees Stay Connected
Isolation, especially during times of distress, is terrible for well-being and emotional health. When, either because of physical distance or sheer workload, people on a team are not collaborating as a team, individual team members could begin to feel disconnected.
It is up to managers to ensure that their teams stay cohesive and stay connected. This can be done through regular team meetings, quarterly or monthly team building, instituting team norms that inspire connection, or even pairing team members together for relevant projects.
As important as the manager-employee relationship is for building a healthy culture, the relationships between team members is just as vital and should be bolstered.
Create a Comfortable Working Environment
As mentioned previously, there are oodles of stressful situations innate to working any job. Those are non-negotiable, but companies and managers can and should take care to reduce stressors, discomfort, and general complications in their employees’ physical work environment.
The physical environment that people work in everyday plays a vital role in the mental health of employees. Is there good lighting? Is there greenery nearby or in the immediate environment? Do employees have access to the things they need to do their jobs effectively? Are upper management given luxurious amenities and general employees given little comfort?
The importance of providing good, not just safe, working conditions for employees can not be overstated. By taking care to design facilities where every employee can thrive, companies and managers show their people that they matter. This goes a long way toward not just limiting negative emotions, but also toward inspiring positive ones. Walking into a physical space that brings comfort, joy, and optimism helps employees be happy, and happy employees can be miracle workers.
Emotions are Hard
Building an emotionally supportive work environment is not easy and should not be taken lightly.
Employees are people and people feel emotions, so work environments should echo this truth and be built in a way that supports employees’ holistic selves.
In the meantime, managers should also take care to monitor their own stressors. Caring for others should never mean not caring for one's self.
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