Listen, empathize and care: nurturing mental wellness at work
Over the past two years, numerous measures to combat the pandemic (including lockdowns, confinement, working from home, and more) have led to a great deal of anxiety, stress and loneliness. These feelings have negatively affected many people’s mental health, both in their personal and professional lives. Consequently, the topic has been very much in the public eye, and many companies have launched conversations, workshops and programs to foster good mental health in the workplace.
Our Senior Director of Human Resources, Marie-Claude Boucher, recently offered her thoughts about how radical caring – a core value at Englobe - helps create a workplace that prioritizes its employees’ mental wellness.
In your view, what responsibility does a company bear toward its employees’ mental health?
Businesses have a major responsibility. We spend a significant amount of time at work. That means as an organization, we need to care about our people and create an environment that is safe, where mental health is a priority. People must be able to talk about mental health and obtain solid information, to reduce the stigma over time.
Do you think the way mental health is viewed in the workplace has evolved?
I think overall, society has a long history of stigmatizing mental health issues to some degree. They were often seen as a weakness and kept quiet. Mental health problems are not visible in the way a broken arm is, for example. So when people suffered from a mental illness, they were often labeled, then ostracized and judged.
Society has made progress since then. Companies have made efforts – like giving people a mental health day, for example. But there’s still a long way to go. There are no mental health hospitals or clinics. You can’t just drive into a centre or institution the way you would go to a hospital for your broken arm. If you do manage to consult a doctor, it’s usually for more serious mental illnesses, but not milder issues like stress or anxiety.
Ever since the pandemic, these issues are being talked about more and people are realizing that it’s okay to do so. Over time, I think people will understand they shouldn’t judge.
One of Englobe’s core values is radical caring. What does this mean to you?
It means that caring for our people is a priority. It means truly understanding what they’re going through. Also, it’s not just about our employees - we also care about our clients, our suppliers, our communities, and the world. It really extends far beyond just Englobe.
From an HR perspective, it also means adapting our programs to address needs, and making people feel these programs can make a difference. At the same time, it’s also about respecting each person’s uniqueness. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, but must be tailored to really address individual people’s situations and issues.
As a company, how does Englobe show this caring?
Well, I think organizations are sometimes a bit scared of that word. In a professional setting, telling people you care about them can feel unexpected. But it’s possible to really care for your people in the workplace.
To get there, we must first learn to care about ourselves. At times we can be our own worst enemy and the judgments we make about others are very often the same judgments we make about ourselves. By taking care of our own individual mental health, we can better understand and accept ourselves as we are.
Englobe and our employees understand this idea very well. As an engineering company, we really understand how to build bridges. This is just another way to do that – instead of structural bridges, we’re building bridges between people.
It’s also about taking a step back, and realizing how fortunate we are to have these great people working with us. From a leadership standpoint, it’s about gratitude. And the more grateful you are, the more you take the time to say thank you to your people. It’s another positive way to show you care.
So in HR, we teach leaders about recognition because it makes a real difference.
In your opinion, what’s the correlation between caring and mental health?
When we think of mental health in the workplace, we often think of major conditions like bipolar disease or schizophrenia. This isn’t wrong, but often it can be more subtle. So one way we can focus on mental health is by understanding our biases and not stigmatizing or judging people.
In HR, we often differentiate between sympathizing and empathizing. Empathy isn’t just about feeling badly for someone; it’s truly putting yourself in their shoes and taking the time to really listen to what they have to say without judgment. Luckily, empathy can be learned, and the more you demonstrate it, the better you become at it.
When you care, you take the time to ask your employees how they’re doing and then really listen to the reply. You make yourself available to them. You create a safe space where people can be real, speak from the heart, and open up to you.
That’s an interesting point, about how signs of mental illness in the workplace can be more subtle. What are some of the signs to watch for?
If you’re close to your people, you can often spot things. You might see a change in attitude, in willingness, in energy, in the tone or way of speaking. Your employees might be less resilient, or start becoming discouraged. You can also see it in the quality of their work, or in the way they respond. If a member of my team suddenly becomes aggressive or isn’t working well with others, those are also signs that his/her mental health might not be good at the moment.
I always ask my employees “are you sleeping well?” It’s a good clue. If you can’t fall asleep, if you have trouble getting up in the morning, if you’re waking up multiple times during the night – it says a lot about your state of mind. I also ask them if they have an activity or hobby that helps them disconnect and relax, especially if they have a lot on their plate.
We also have to remember that the cause may be totally unrelated to work. There could be something happening in their personal lives that’s affecting them at work. That’s where listening, showing empathy, and not judging become really important.
Do you think some employees might be scared or worried about revealing their mental health issues at work? Specifically, do they worry about being judged or negatively perceived?
Sometimes. That’s why creating a safe space is important, and so is empathy. But we also need to raise awareness about not judging people, or letting this kind of information colour how colleagues and leaders see that employee.
For example, let’s say one employee really wants to make a good impression. So he takes on a lot of projects, but then becomes overwhelmed. Colleagues might offer to take some of his projects – but is that really the answer? Instead, it would be better to take the time to listen and truly understand why the person is in that situation. Then we can help him prioritize what’s urgent, what’s important, and what can be delayed or handed off to someone else. He can regain control of his workload that way and prevent the situation from recurring.
But then, we have to make sure we don’t penalize the employee for opening up and asking for help by implying later on that he’s not performing well enough, or transferring interesting projects to someone else. It’s unfair and frankly, just because this employee is having problems now, it doesn’t mean he’ll still have them later on. Caring about the person, and taking a step back, can help leaders put things in perspective.
I understand that. In the same vein, what measures have you put in place to ensure employees are comfortable sharing their mental health issues?
We’ve launched a few initiatives and programs over the last year and have others in the works. In addition to upcoming training sessions for leaders, they can always rely on their HR Business Partners. We’ve also set up a Mental Health Committee. There’s a lot of interest right now because leaders want to have more tools.
For example, leaders want to improve their ability to perceive when an employee is having a tough time.They want to be able to spot the signs in advance and be proactive in helping him or her so they don’t reach that breaking point.
That said, I honestly believe that in addition to everything we’re going to develop, it will all come down to caring for and listening to our employees. Hearing is one thing, but listening is very different. The more we listen, the more it will become second nature to listen. This is the culture we’re building , as we continue working to completely eliminate the stigma around mental health.
To me, this is how we can demonstrate radical caring each and every day.