As a mother of two and manager of many, I’m hyper-aware of how my communication impacts the people around me. While I’m only human and may not always be as intentional as I aspire to be, I know that my words and, to an even greater degree, my actions reveal my priorities and values.
So, while I consider myself a skilled communicator, I continue to work at it because I know it’s an essential part of connecting with and caring for others. That said, some topics feel more difficult to navigate than others, and facilitating open dialogue around mental wellbeing from a place of openness and vulnerability isn’t always easy or straightforward—especially in the workplace. Even though executives and employees experience mental health struggles at nearly identical rates—we’re all human, after all—sometimes, as leaders, we fall into the trap of thinking that being “strong” for our teams means hiding the challenges we face and the hard work we put into overcoming them.
Everyone has mental health. It’s not simply the absence of mental illness—rather, it’s a continuum ranging from mental wellness to acute illness. Throughout our lives, we’ll all fall at different places along that continuum. But leaders can only address their people’s ever-changing mental health needs through ongoing two-way communication built on trust.
So, how can this be done? Here are three strategies that have worked for my teams and me, past and present.
1. BE VULNERABLE
Being honest and open about your own mental well-being and times you have struggled shows your employees that it’s okay to not be okay. It also reinforces the message that everyone needs support—in both good times and bad. This sort of realness builds trust and rapport and becomes especially important during turbulent times. For example, when I had to deal with a reduced budget for a department I was leading at a previous company, I was open and transparent about what was happening, what resources we could maintain, and how I expected that to impact not just the bottom line but our team outcomes.
2. TELL, SHOW, REPEAT
If you want to encourage your employees to get the most out of your organization’s mental wellbeing benefits, you’ll need to communicate about them early and often. For best results, I employ a tactic I call “tell, show, repeat.” This means I make sure to first communicate about available benefits, then walk people through how to use them, and repeat this process at regular intervals. I also make a point of mentioning the benefits I use and how they’ve helped me. One example is reminding my team to take their quarterly wellbeing days and sharing how that time to disconnect benefitted me—whether I paddle-surfed that day or spent quality time with my kids.
3. KEEP THE CONVERSATION FLOWING
Starting the conversation around mental health is crucial and sometimes challenging. And it’s also just the first step of many. As a leader, I make a point of following up and following through—both are key in building relationships and trust with my team. Besides, there’s no such thing as one-and-done when it comes to talking about mental wellbeing, an issue that impacts all of us daily. Studies show that two-way communication between leaders and direct reports, called “symmetrical communication,” increases the quality of the relationship between employees and employers. In my own experience, I’ve seen this to be true across organizations, teams, and situations. By making sure my teams understand I don’t just accept but truly welcome feedback and will receive it thoughtfully, I’m able to build a stronger bond with my employees so that we can troubleshoot problems as they arise, driving positive change together.
We know what happens at work has a direct impact on people’s mental wellbeing—and what we communicate to our teams is a big part of that. As a leader, I make an extra effort to own my experiences, check in on my employees, and speak openly about mental wellbeing at work. It may sound like a subtle shift in perspective, but I’ve seen a significant impact at my current organization, Koa Health, and with previous teams.
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