I’m an entrepreneur. How do I ensure my team is cared for?
This probably won’t surprise anyone, but the definition of “culture” is hard to pin down. I have yet to find one that appropriately communicates its significance to the business, team, or employees. The nature of culture is intangible and hard to define, and yet, good or bad, we know it when we see it. In hiring that is sometimes described as, “culture fit.” In meetings, it can be described as “alignment.”
What does this even mean? Is it the intangibles of caring or purpose? Can it be quantified and boiled down to both results and learning? Is it the collective health and happiness of the team?
With such confusion on company culture, it is no wonder the mental health of employees is neglected. When you don’t know what you stand for, you start to run dry. While the discussion continues, people are pummeled with increasing workloads, constant connectivity to everything from social media to-do lists, and increasing pressure in the west to “rise and grind” or “hustle harder.” The cognitive dissonance is striking.
This is why when it comes to my own personal goals, I strive to ensure two things as a business leader — a happy team and happy customers.
If we really focus the question, as an advocate for mental health, how do we walk the walk and set the groundwork for a culture that respects mental health and the whole individual? It’s not easy, but here are three ways to start:
Adopting an affirmative, positive frame for mental health is hard work. However, framing conversations in a clear, concise and non-apologetic tone is a good place to start. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone say “sorry” the same way someone uses “so” or “well” to start a sentence. Another one is, “sorry to bother you” or some other self-deprecating line before jumping into a thought, feeling, or idea. Regardless of who is in the room or what we are discussing, it is essential to push against these platitudes and filler in order for the team to both be confident and have their ideas taken as seriously as possible. I struggle with this as well. It is a lot easier for me to say, “Sorry to bother you. I feel like we should do X. It might not be the best idea and I hope you might help me make it better.” Instead, I am working hard to practice what I preach with my teams. Think through not just what I want to say, but how I want to say it so that I have a positive frame, and I am clear, concise, and confident.
Set expectations on priorities
It is always concerning to me when someone apologizes for missing work because they are sick or have a family emergency. It breaks my heart when someone can’t decide whether to go on the work retreat or celebrate their best friend’s birthday (or worse, their own!). As a leader, I set expectations by making it clear that my priorities are family, close friends, then work. During conversations, I also try to take note of other individual priorities. If someone tells me they have been volunteering with a local non-profit or civic group, and it breaks their heart to cancel in that community, then I do my absolute best to honor that. This works to both eliminate guilt and makes it clear that if I am asking an employee to prioritize an event, meeting, etc., I believe this to be truly important and worth prioritizing.
Mental Health Days
Mental health is important. We don’t feel bad calling in because we have food poisoning. Why, then, do people feel stigma when they need a mental health day? There have been dozens of times that I have struggled. Sometimes I can push through. Sometimes I can’t. When I can’t, I make it clear why and treat it the exact same as if I had a cold. If someone is coming at 40%, I admire them for trying to push through, ask the question of whether it makes sense for them to be there, and then honor that response — regardless of what it is.
All of this usually requires some tough conversations. People need to be open and honest about their priorities, their mental health, and their self-doubts. It is important to create safe spaces that foster trust and openness. It takes a lifetime to build and a single moment to destroy. (No pressure, right?) Sometimes that means owning a mistake. Sometimes that means creating the opportunity for a tough conversation. Sometimes that means just being around. It is always hard because it is the foundation the rest of the house is built on.
This isn’t a list of tips and tricks or hacks. These are deliberate, daily, consistent actions. They are hard and I fail — a lot. There is tension in doing this work.
No matter if you are understaffed, on a deadline, frustrated at home (or work), we all still need to make mental health a priority. I try my hardest to meditate and plan every day to keep my head in a place to be mindful of those around me. I get it right more times than I get it wrong, But I do get it wrong. Sometimes I fail for a week, sometimes for a month. That is how you know you have built a strong culture though. If you fail and the people around you support you enough to help you learn from your struggles, then you are doing something right. And don’t we all just strive to have more good days than bad ones anyway?