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A Million Little Things

The Real Issue Behind Workplace Mental Health Issues

In the past few weeks alone over a half dozen companies have mentioned that their big focus for 2019 is tackling mental health.

Many of them don’t yet know what the solution might be. What they do know is that the problem is escalating, and they need to fix it soon — especially given how expensive mental health claims are. NIOSH reports that work-related stress costs the U.S. economy nearly $300 billion a year.

While I commend these organizations for wanting to fix the problem, I don’t think “fixing” is the right answer. We need to find solutions to prevent the problem from arising in the first place rather than solutions that fix the problem.

Things That Break Us

In the new TV series A Million Little Things, one of the lead characters takes his own life and another attempts the same but abandons his plan. (No spoiler alert here. That’s all in the trailer). Pressures, broken relationships, lack of purpose – their million little stressors in work and life broke them.

I fully appreciate that there are unavoidable mental health problems that require formal interventions. But I also believe that many mental health problems are less about diagnosed issues and more a result of the million little things in work and life that, over time, break our employees too.

Our research on the prevalence of burnout revealed that over half (57%) of all professionals feel exhausted by the environment in which they work, and more 7 in 10 workers have physically burnt out at least once in their lifetime

Now my husband likes to remind me that TV and reality aren’t the same thing, so I keep that in mind when I make this comparison, but just like in the show, the stories I hear from our clients about suicide, addiction, broken marriages, and health issues related to work and life stress are rampant. Stress induced alopecia (Really….losing your hair because of stress!), standing on the edge of a parking garage ready to jump on a Friday afternoon, and literally turning yellow and dying from not taking the time to go to the doctor (think backed-up kidneys) are all real stories from our clients where high-performance cultures are the norm – clients who are ready to “fix mental health problems.”

Rethinking Break/Fix

Instead of fixing the problems, let’s prevent the problems in the first place. Let’s teach people how to live in a more sustainable, sane ways — ways that don’t lead to anxiety, depression, and addiction. Behind many mental health issues are things like perfectionism, guilt, not being able to let go, lack of strategies for managing stress, not feeling equipped to have courageous conversations, and the need for control.

Furthermore, WE are behind many of the mental health issues we want to “fix.” We are creating workplaces and careers that aren’t sustainable. We have created cultures where people are afraid to fail. We’ve promoted leaders who lack emotional intelligence. We’ve created expectations and workloads that aren’t manageable for two people, yet alone one. And yet we wonder why mental health problems are rife.

Our Own Million Little Things

As Brené Brown describes in Dare To Lead, most of us armor up every day. With armor like perfectionism and control we don’t have to be vulnerable. We can feel good.

But this armor can crack. It can contribute to our anxiety, cause us to medicate to mask the fear or pain, and lead to depression or worse.

Sometimes it doesn’t feel very easy to be a productive, effective, engaged employee while struggling to also be a great fill in the blank.

We each have our own way of armoring up to feel like we can succeed in both work and life and our own combination of “crazy making” behaviors that become our million little things:

  • color sorting kids’ Legos before bed (true admission by a workshop attendee)
  • rewriting a report (vs. having to give feedback)
  • saying yes to things that don’t align with your values
  • giving up working out/self-care to get another thing ticked off the list
  • not nurturing friendships/relationships
  • trying to be “enough” on social media

Changing Mindsets

Organizations are examining what they should change to impact mental health issues – and believe me, there’s plenty to change. But it definitely takes two to tango. Personal habits and mindsets are just as much to blame as organizational pressures. If we don’t address both, we can’t adequately address mental health issues. Here’s how:

  • Stop the Insanity: Teach employees sustainable habits for career and life. Provide coaching so they can work through their own perfectionism and control demons. Help them eliminate their million little things before they lead to big things.
  • Humanize Leaders: Create more emotionally intelligent leaders who manage capacity, are empathetic, and recognize the whole person. Help them recognize signs of overwork, stress and burnout. Give them language and tools to proactively do something about it.
  • Be Realistic: Revisit workload and expectations to make them reasonable to attain. Stop giving badges of honor for those that work the most hours and sacrifice everything to get to the top. Recognize the contributions of everyone and make it manageable for all to enjoy a life too.
  • Eliminate The “Hero Complex.” Create an environment where asking for help is encouraged and conversations about needs are second nature. Even as adults, most of us are looking for approval and acknowledgement and therefore don’t show signs of weakness. Make it ok to be vulnerable and teach people how to ask for the support they need from their team and organization.

This isn’t about fixing your employees’ mental health problems. This is about getting to the root of the problem. It’s about overhauling the system that’s leading to these problems. It is about making work and life more sustainable – for the organizations, employees, families and communities that are impacted by the current mental health epidemic. Its about looking in the mirror, owning our role in this, and doing something proactive to prevent — not fix the problem.

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