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How to build “cultural resilience” that prioritizes employees’ mental health

Cultural resilience aims to institutionalize aspects of a business culture distinguished for how mental health is valued and understand the inextricable link between mental wellbeing and productivity.

Employers are increasingly more involved in decisions around personal and professional fulfillment, and not always in a positive way. The “Great Resignation” demonstrated that millions of Americans often think about changing jobs or careers to reach personal goals. That means employers must reexamine ways their organizations can provide the right balance of role, work environment, and culture fit to attract and retain employees.

With more than 10 million job openings available, employees have choices—lots of them. A primary consideration many face are unique challenges mitigating risk to themselves and their family members due to the pandemic. Others experience pressure on mental health from excessive stress to anxiety to depression, and some struggle with substance abuse or other addiction challenges.

With a record 4.4 million people quitting through September 2021, it’s become a business imperative for organizations to develop “cultural resilience” that will help foster better overall mental health. It also aids in the effectiveness of the workplace (no matter what the setting is) and prioritizes balance for employees in a world that has become more imbalanced elsewhere.

Cultural resilience aims to institutionalize aspects of a business culture distinguished for how mental health is valued and understand the inextricable link between mental wellbeing and productivity.

Simply providing employees with a phone number to call if they have mental health challenges isn’t enough anymore. Employers must view mental health as organic, supported by leaders, and well understood by first-line managers who have a vital role to play in nurturing the culture. Certainly, every organization is unique, and there are different methods to build a distinctive culture. However, throughout that variety, a few consistent approaches typically help reinforce an organizational culture that prioritizes the mental health of teammates.

Listen. Listen. Listen.

“You’re short on ears and long on mouth.” — John Wayne

Business leaders should start by assessing the current state, including employee perceptions of leadership and organization. Leaders must conduct qualitative and quantitative assessments to gauge how employees view their role, stress level, work-life balance, etc. These assessments highlight the elements of the organization that employees connect with and identify explicit places where wellbeing is impacted. When done well, this effectively creates a mental health “persona” for the workplace. A leading mistake, particularly for seasoned leaders, is to believe that they are entirely “in touch” or well aware of the business culture. Regular assessments, particularly when they shed light on the wellbeing challenges of teammates, serve to confirm or augment other viewpoints.

The dimensions that matter likely involve things like how conflict is handled, how invested managers are in their team’s success, whether teammates feel listened to, whether they understand company strategy, or whether their work energizes them. Workplace personas usually devolve to perceptions of power and a single question; “does what I do/suggest/invest my time in matter?” When that power is out of balance, teammates are less effective, less engaged, more likely to feel pressure on their individual wellbeing, and more likely to look for someplace else to spend their career.

Counsel the company persona

“Action may not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action.” — Benjamin Disraeli

Once leaders gather employee feedback, the next step is to turn those insights into action that address areas of concern. There’s no one answer, but there are principles that typically are effective.

First, directly attack outliers. Lead with clarity and urgency when there are issues raised that are unacceptable in the workplace. Racism, misogyny, bullying, etc., are never acceptable.

Second, keep it simple. Pick no more than 2-3 areas highlighted in the assessment process to target, and build real, meaningful change with proven, thoughtful initiatives that have validated outcomes. Technology or service partners can often help here since they can present a framework that engages teammates and provides valuable resources and data to assess progress.

Finally, communicate transparently. Share goals, share the process, share initiatives. The last two years have illustrated the willingness of teammates to share their views on how to shape effective working environments. Leaders must reciprocate with the same level of clarity.

Creating a more resilient business culture may take many shapes. The action may be to reexamine employee work policies to make them more flexible and accommodating. If employees want more access to mental health and wellbeing solutions, the step may be to implement digitally-enabled tools to provide coaching and counseling services. There’s no single formula, but the core willingness to activate the company culture with an acceptance that employee health matters and reliable solutions to address it is a giant first step.

Lead with vulnerability

“I’d always tried to resist playing the supervirility thing. I liked showing the vulnerability of age.” — Clint Eastwood

Culture change can’t happen easily unless senior teams embody that change with their actions. They can help set the right tone by committing themselves to authentically doing what employees want their organizational culture to prioritize more. Leaders who can assess and share their personal journey stand a far greater chance of building the trust needed to effect change. The reality is that all leaders struggle at some point. Communicating that openly and honestly unlocks the opportunity to reshape the company persona more rapidly.

That same authenticity supports a focus on the emotional health of employees as not only the right thing to do, but the only thing to do. It directly impacts team performance in the form of increased productivity, engagement, and retention. Cultural resilience is a powerful strategy to reinforce a great culture or reshape an emerging one.

Photo: metamorworks, Getty Images

Mike Nolte is the CEO of Uprise Health, a leading digital mental health company that cares for the total person.

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