By Cami Hogg for Unmind
How has Covid-19 shifted the needle for employee wellbeing? And what does the future of work look like? We unpack the key takeaways from the recent Make A Difference summits in London and New York to find out what industry leaders have to say.
Over the last few months, we’ve had to rethink everything we know about employee wellbeing at work. From physical and mental health to financial and social wellbeing, organisations have been faced with new challenges to support the evolving wellbeing needs of their workforces. And for company leaders, one question has persisted: how will the last few months shape how we view employee wellbeing in the future?
This question, among others, is one that the recent Make A Difference World (MADWorld) summits in London and New York sought to address. MADWorld is an annual series of summits taking place globally that aims to shine a light on employee wellbeing and mental health at work.
This year’s summits took place in more unusual circumstances. As industry leaders, mental health experts, and participants joined this year’s packed agenda from their own homes, it was not only a reminder of how much the last few months have changed the working world, but also of the power of connection when we all unite behind an important cause. Our CEO and co-founder Nick Taylor kicked things off with some food for thought about how the world of work is changing, and what this means for our mental health.
With a multitude of illuminating sessions covering all aspects of employee mental health, from leading through a pandemic to its intersection with Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, here are our top five takeaways from the London and New York events.
1. Understanding your employee needs takes more than asking ‘how are you?’
As employee wellbeing rises up the agenda for organisations globally, it’s becoming clear that different people have very different needs, and those needs change all the time. The only way to keep a pulse of how your employees are actually feeling is by making sure you’re asking them regularly – and that you’re asking the right questions.
“We need to kill the convention of ‘how are you’,” said John Amaechi (OBE), organisational psychologist. “It’s one of the most damaging things we do in the workplace – don’t ask if you don’t care. You’re going to ask a question that should require an answer of substance, and demand one that has no substance.
“We often talk about people being our most important asset, but I like to say the energy and health of our people is probably our most important asset.”
2. Leaders must lead from the top on building positive mental health cultures
Leaders, from frontline managers to the C-Suite, play an integral part in shaping employee wellbeing at work. Not only do they help set and enforce structural aspects of working, like policy, but they are also important for modelling behaviour from the top-down.
For Guru Gowrappan, CEO of Verizon Media, it’s something that needs to be embedded in the cultural foundations: “By sparking the conversation early and often, and having safe-space discussions, it opens the door to a new corporate culture that normalises mental health. It’s about leading by example, creating those conversations and making people feel safe.
Mike Malloy, Chief Amazement Officer at Rocket Mortgage, added that in order to nurture mental health from within, companies must focus on training their leaders on how to be more emotionally literate, including how they can respond to employees struggling with their mental health.
3. We’re not working from home, we’re living at work
This year’s summits have naturally focused on the changing relationship between our working and home lives – and how the two have collided in new ways. But while much has been made about fostering work-life balance during this time, as Mike Malloy noted, the boundaries between both have been blurred – and that’s something leaders must acknowledge.
“It’s not work-life balance, it’s just life,” he noted. “We’re not expecting you to be online from [9am to 5pm] – I expect you to be accountable to your job and have your life happen without judgement. We’re not working from home – we’re living at work. There’s no distinction - we have to allow one another to make the choices to be the best we can.”
4. Empathy and compassion are critical in fostering positive mental health cultures
Creating a working environment where mental health is nurtured and celebrated relies on fostering a space in which employees feel psychologically safe to bring their whole selves to work. Part of this, noted Robert Gill, will be in building empathetic and compassionate cultures.
“We can’t do this without empathy,” said Robert Gill, HR Business Partner at Square. “Empathy is the backbone of being able to do this effectively. If we can lead with empathy and show that we are partners to people, and [that] we want to find success for the individuals and for the organisation, that allows us to be more effective in what we do.”
Deborah Olson, Principal Benefits Manager and Mental Health Champion at Genentech, added that leaders must model this empathy by not being afraid to share their mental health challenges publicly.
5. Shattering stigma around mental health is about making the invisible visible
Our world is codified by a series of structures that support some people, and are detrimental to others. As Shanna B. Tiayon, founder of workplace wellbeing consulting company Wellbeing Works, noted, we can only shatter stigma when we make these invisible structures and policies visible. These might include the language we use, the ways we act and the biases we carry that may limit others and their capacity to reach out for support.
Shanna added that part of this approach was about reframing how organisations view employee performance: “Organisations need to shift from a performance-based lens of viewing employee behaviours and conduct, and develop an innate sensitivity to be able to view things from a mental health-based lens. The default [should be] to offer support first, as opposed to discipline or corrective action because of the implications on performance.”