In March 2020, the whole world shut down. We all kept waiting “two more weeks” as we watched the calendar months, and then years, fly away. We have been adjusting to this “new normal” for a while but many of us are still wandering the planet waiting for the bottom to fall out or waiting for what’s next. Our anxiety and apprehension has been tested and experienced all time highs. Coming out of the pandemic, founders and employees alike experienced isolation, video call fatigue and burnout post remote and hybrid working. These situations have escalated the already significantly high mental health analytics in the workplace. What can founders do to support their own mental health efforts and what is expected of them for their employees and how can founders support them in the workplace?
Entrepreneurs, with their steadfast endurance and resilience to stress, will ignore issues with themselves in favor of keeping everything together for their employees. After all, everyone has their eyes on the founder, looking for cues as to what to expect. If founders are reflecting stress or anxiety, they internally struggle with how their employees see them, diminishing their confidence to tackle difficult tasks and maintain the behaviour of a mallard duck. Calm on the surface, but feverishly paddling below to keep everything afloat. According to a study completed by the National Institute of Mental Health, approximated 72% of founders report mental health struggles, in comparison with the average person which is about 48%. As time has gone on, with the mental health stigma eroding away, founders are taking ownership of their mental health and setting an example for those who uplift and surround them: their employees.
It’s simple – a healthy team needs a healthy leader. And as the leader is caring for themselves, they are caring for their team by example. Isaac Rudansky, founder and CEO of AdVenture Media Group, sent his employees home to avoid the spread of COVID-19. He lost 35% of his clients in the first three weeks of the pandemic. “I’m actually an optimistic person, but this was a really dark period,” he said. “Oftentimes, when you’re dealing with feelings of depression and stress, it’s impossible to look at a longer horizon.” But founders do need to maintain a stiff upper lip and eyes upon the horizon. Here are some techniques to assist our founders:
- Identify what you are feeling by writing it down. Some like to sit with it and feel it, but sometimes once we use a pen and paper, it forms a life of it’s own with it’s own responses like an out of body experience. It also alleviates stress and anxiety, and it helps increase IQ and memory; it’s proven to heal trauma says Meha Agrawal, CEO and founder of Silk and Sonder. She sought this as a result of feeling intimidated by therapy and bored by meditation (some of the more conventional, really good opportunities for mental health assistance). It’s not going to be a one size fits all approach, so one should be patient until they find one that fits so they stick with it.
- Leaning on other people (stay tuned for next week) is important for entrepreneurs, but maintaining personal relationships can be difficult with their demanding schedules. And distance, during the pandemic, only exasperated this. The National Institutes of Health and the CDC agree that loneliness can lead to high blood pressure, obesity, depression and general cognitive decline. Meha Agrawal created the Sonder Club, as she valued and appreciated the impact and importance of community. This is an online community where Silk and Sonder users can connect on their wellness journey. Talking with people can be one of the best outlets for maintaining mental health, whether it is a professional or a family member or friend or another founder. Expressing feelings candidly can show strength and character, despite what the founder is experiencing. Be prepared to share openly without judgement. You never know when someone else is experiencing the same feelings. It’s also important that “what’s said in the room, stays in the room” for founders to feel safe and grounded in the sharing space.
- Making time for yourself with a demanding schedule that is 24/7 can be extremely difficult but it is extremely necessary for the mental well being of a founder. Headspace, a website dedicated to the mission of improving the health and happiness of the world, recommends users starting with just 3 – 5 minutes a day. Find a creative outlet and spend a few minutes a day breaking to do this. If you enjoy working out and time is off the essence, don’t stress getting to the gym for an hour and just take a walk around the block. Sometimes we are our own worst enemy when in fact, we should be our own friend. Other tech solutions that work and regulate time for the founder is the mindfulness website, Calm, or chatbots like Woebot, which offers therapy-style conversations 24/7.
Now, what can employers do to support their employees well beings? The economic burden on mental health, in Canada, is around $51 billion. Indirect costs related to poor mental health in the workplace includes absenteeism, presenteeism, and challenges with recruitment and retention in an already struggling labour market post pandemic.
Founders still need to operate their businesses with manpower, but they also need to be abreast of human rights legislation and providing a duty to accommodate in these circumstances, as well. Employers should do the following:
- Consider an employee’s request for mental health accommodation
- Explore what accommodation is needed
- Contemplate possible accommodation options
- Request information required to respond to the accommodation request and in some circumstances obtain an independent medical evaluation
- Process the accommodation request in a timely manner
- Maintain the employee’s confidentiality
It is important for employers to maintain thorough records of the accommodation process. An employer’s failure to consider an accommodation request or taking appropriate steps in response to a request, may be seen as a failure to satisfy the duty to accommodate. The accommodation should be accomplished up until undue hardship. When assessing whether an accommodation would cause undue hardship, employers may only consider (i) cost, (ii) outside sources of funding, if any, and (iii) health and safety requirements, if any.
Appropriate accommodations for mental health challenges can include, but are not limited to:
- Flexible scheduling
- Medical leaves of absence
- Modifications to job duties
- Further training
- Reduction of hours and/or remote working or more flexible work arrangements
The duty to accommodate requires an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation that meets the employee’s needs—not the employee’s preferred accommodation. Accordingly, the accommodation decision should be based on the specific facts of the situation on a case-by-case basis.
Employers can take the following proactive steps to support employee mental health:
- Provide employees, including management, with mental health training and awareness
- Advise employees of the available employee and family assistance programs
- Establish healthy workplace expectations and after-hours availability
- Recognize circumstances where there may be a relationship between a disability and an employee’s job performance and providing mental health self-assessment tools for the employee, like work-life balance questionnaires and mental health meter quizzes
- Take a flexible approach to accommodation of an employee’s mental health challenge and remain approachable and safe
- Provide relaxation spaces for coworkers. Equally important is making it culturally acceptable to take breaks and use these spaces. Leaders and managers can set the tone.
Organizations that make mental health a priority experience reduced absenteeism (from 60 to 40%), enhanced employee morale and retention, much improved employee performance, and decreased health care and disability just to mention a few perks. Bell Canada has been a champion on mental health. “Bell Let’s Talk” is the largest-ever corporate initiative supporting Canadian mental health. Launched in September 2010, Bell Let’s Talk promotes awareness and drives action with a strategy built on four pillars: fighting the stigma of mental health, improving access to care, supporting research, and—most relevant to this study—leading by example in workplace mental health. Key elements of the initiative include an enhanced return-to-work (RTW) program, improved accessibility of resources and tools, mandatory leader training, and cultivating a culture of support. “Supporting the mental health and safety of our people is equally important to supporting their physical health and safety,” said Bernard le Duc, EVP and CHRO, Bell. As a result, Bell has seen its employees’ mental health–related short-term disability relapse and recurrence decrease by over 50 percent from 2010 baseline levels.
- Employee mental health in the workplace – KPMG Canada
- 5 Practical Strategies Founders Can Use to Improve Their Mental Health | Entrepreneur
- 3 Founders Share the Practices That Strengthen Their Mental Health (businessinsider.com)
- About Us – Headspace
- Mental Health in the Workplace: Why Support Is So Important (betterup.com)