As a Board Director it can be hard to know how to protect the mental health of your people when it is such an invisible problem. Throw in an unexpected crisis, such as the terrorist attacks that occurred at Countdown supermarkets in New Zealand. Suddenly you are left wondering whether there was anything more you could have done to prevent a situation like that. In this article, I am going to focus on what needs to be done after a traumatic event.

As a medical doctor, I’ve had to work in emergency departments and saw the aftermath of trauma. In some ways, experts have also classed the COVID-19 pandemic as a collective trauma (1). Not diminishing the effects of the terrorist attacks, this means every single organisation globally is dealing with a trauma event that they need to respond to. The last time we had something similar impact businesses all around the world was World War II.

Trauma is about meaning making and that grief does not occur only when it is the passing of a loved one, but it could be the absence of comradery that used to exist when we were all in the office. Part of that meaning making an employee will undertake will be informed by what you do as Directors.

There are common responses to trauma and therefore ways in which to model recovery and resilience to resume normal activities. As a Director there are two question you will have to ask. One is how are your people coping and whether you have visibility to that? Whether it is increased fatigue from hypervigilence compounded by poor sleep. Or the numbing of emotions and stress reactions through increased alcohol consumption.

You are not working from home, You are at your home during a crisis trying to work.

Your response to the first question then leads to the second question, which is how am I supporting my people with their mental health and wellbeing? Am I tracking whether those supports I have put in place is actually working? If those supports aren’t working, am I trying new initiatives to ensure that they are targeted to what my people tell me they need, rather than me assuming what they need.

To adequately answer those two questions can be uncomfortable and not as cut and dry as reviewing the Financials at a board meeting. However, it is even scarier to be flying blind with your decision making in the absence of any data. At any given time, 1 in 4 of your people will be going through mental distress requiring additional support, so this is not an inconsequential problem affecting only a miniscule number of your workforce.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 requires policies, processes, and monitoring systems to be put in place. Please don’t just rely on your CEO’s word that everything is fine, as you would not have met your Director’s duties if you did that. The mental health stigma that exists means that most employees still won’t be providing you or the Management team the true picture of how work and other stressors are impacting them.

It is thus crucial that they have a safe space to anonymously share their challenges and get immediate support to close that feedback loop. Even though they won’t want to be identified, paradoxically there is an expectation that you are providing relevant support to what they need. By being seen to be tackling the root causes of any stressors related to their work based on aggregated data reports, you are building relational trust and confidence that the organisation cares about them. This is critical during a time of crisis and change.

Gone are the days where you could turn a blind eye to your employee’s wellbeing. We spend so much time at work that there is a real responsibility for employers to not just be ticking the box. You need to be proactively taking steps to improve the workplace culture and ensure that it is both psychologically safe and more importantly a place for them to thrive and find purpose in.

As Directors you cannot prevent every single bad thing from happening. However, there must be robust inquiries around the board table into how you can better support employee's mental health every day, not just when a crisis occurs. A strong culture of wellbeing is modelled from the top and will build the company’s reputation and employees’ loyalty.

Wellbeing is more than just a fruit bowl or providing employees onsite counselling when a crisis happens. We are all different in how we make meaning and develop resilience, so being able to have tools that are personalised to guiding us on our own wellbeing journey is key.

If you would like to know more about how Clearhead can support your organisation with proactive digital mental health tools, access to therapy 7 days a week, and sophisticated employee wellbeing data analytics. Please reach out to [email protected] or check out our website for more information: https://www.clearhead.org.nz/business

- Dr Angela Lim, CEO & Cofounder of Clearhead

References:

(1) Garfin, D. (2020). Technology as a coping tool during the COVID‐19 pandemic: Implications and recommendations. Journal of Stress Health: 13(10).