Every year in May, the US recognizes Mental Health Awareness month. This year of all years, this feels like a critical moment of awareness.
In 2019 about 1 in 10 people reported symptoms of anxiety disorder or depression. Two years later, and one year into the pandemic, that rate increased 400% to 4 in 10 adults. In North Carolina, specifically, 1/3 of adults report having symptoms of anxiety disorder or depression. The impact on children and adolescents has been significant, with mental health crisis increasing by almost 30% over the pre-pandemic period.
Let’s be clear: even prior to the pandemic, we had a mental health crisis. This is, as my friend Ryan Estes, a clinician and fellow with the Annie E. Casey Foundation stated, a product of a seriously underfunded mental health care system. While the problem predates the pandemic, COVID and the ongoing uncertainty about many things (return to office or continue remote, to wear a mask or not wear a mask, will kids remain in school or end up back home) has made the issue all the more urgent and pervasive.
So, having identified this (huge and systemic) problem, the question is what can we do?
As with any of these big problems: It starts with recognizing our locus of control.
As employers, we play a significant role in the lives of our team members. We have a responsibility to ensure that we do all that we can to support them and create an environment that enables their ability to address their mental health needs or the needs of loved ones, including acknowledging when things aren’t going well and asking for support.
How do small businesses, with limited resources do this?
As with everything, at least from my perspective, it begins with culture. As the owner and CEO of my business, my primary job (yes, I mean that) is to ensure a company culture defined by respect, trust, transparency, reliable communication, accountability, unified purpose, and a sense of community. You must create a culture, and lead by example, in which each team member is respected and trusted. They must know that, if something is going on, and they need something – a day off, to shift some work to other team members to lighten their load – whatever it may be, that they can ask for it and receive it. While companies may have policies in place, such as flexible PTO, that are meant to enable this, if the culture doesn’t actually enable use of it, most team members won’t, especially if there is an expectation that they will receive judgement from their peers or passive aggressive punishment from their manager.
In keeping with the concept of culture, one of the best things you can do to ensure you are supporting you team members is to ask them what they need. I recently did just that. They had an answer: what they need is more people. There’s a lot happening right now. We are busy. While I know this, and I know everyone is working at top capacity, in my brain it didn’t click just how much they need more team members to spread the workload. My response: Got it. Let’s do that. And we are. I am well aware of what this means from a business perspective. I’m also well aware of what this means from a culture perspective. The bigger the team, the more work to ensure the culture continues to be what it needs to be. None of these are reasons not to do what is needed. It’s my responsibility as the leader of the company. I owe it to my team to ensure they have what they need to thrive professionally, which enables them to thrive personally. I can’t pile work on them until they break and then replace them with the next person. They are not fungible.
Small business owners and leaders need to be educated and informed about mental health. There is so much misinformation, misunderstanding, and stigma associated with mental health, that many people cannot even speak about the issues. This Mental Health Awareness month, Mental Health America is going “Back to Basics” to provide foundational knowledge about mental health and mental health conditions, and to provide support and resources. Whether it is this or other resources, take the time to learn so that you can break the cycle of stigma.
While health insurance and employee assistance programs, and other benefits, are very important to helping people receive the care and support they need, not all small businesses are in a position to offer such benefits. But, that does not mean, as I’ve explained above, that you can’t provide other, potentially as important, if not more so, support to your team members.
If I leave you with anything today, let it be this. As entrepreneurs and business owners we are each of us looking for ways to optimize our operations, to do things better, quicker; to work smarter as opposed to harder. And there is a lot of advice out there about how to motivate your team, manage morale, and promote a productive and respectful culture. The answer to this is simple, but hard: there are no shortcuts in this. Be the change that you wish to see in your organization, in your industry, and in our society.
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