Championing Mental Health in the Workplace: Ariadne Wolf of Mermaid Consulting Shares Strategies for Empowering Employees

Welcome to our interview series, “Empowering the Workplace: Fostering Mental Health Awareness and Support,” where we delve into the invaluable insights of entrepreneurs and professionals who have successfully prioritized mental health in their organizations. In this thought-provoking series, we explore key strategies that organizations can employ to identify and address early signs of mental health issues among employees.

We also examine how companies can create a supportive environment that encourages open discussions about mental health and facilitates access to necessary help and resources. Additionally, we delve into the role of training and education in fostering mental health awareness in the workplace and uncover impactful programs that have contributed to a better understanding and support system for employees.

Join us as we gain valuable knowledge and inspiration from these entrepreneurs who are paving the way for a healthier and more empowered workforce.

Name: Ariadne Wolf
Company: Mermaid Consulting

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What are some key strategies for organizations to identify and address early signs of mental health issues among employees? Share your insights and experiences on implementing proactive measures.

Ariadne Wolf: While organizations cannot do anything to ease the pressures of the trauma or past mental struggles that employees may walk in the door with, organizations can absolutely do their best to ensure a positive and healthy internal environment. That means ensuring genuine collaboration between employees with clearly defined boundaries that all employees are expected to follow, including senior leadership. Organizations can and must create a clearly defined process for employees to report any incidents of harassment, abuse, scapegoating, and inappropriate behavior to HR, who must in turn be receptive to such reports.

Beyond these efforts, organizations must cultivate an internal work environment that is healthy emotionally as well as physically. Are all employees taking regularly scheduled breaks, at reasonable times? Has it become normalized for certain employees or all employees to take breaks whenever best suits the organizational schedule, rather than at reasonable times–for example, do you often see employees eating lunch at their desks rather than truly taking a break, or breaking at 3:30 PM because that is the first time they’ve had available to rest?

What happens when an employee is sick or injured on the job–are they expected to take a break, do their colleagues support them, or is the culture to “suck it up?” When an employee seems to be struggling emotionally, how do others respond? Is it the norm for only senior leaders or only employees with significant social status to express emotion, or is every employee allowed to have a bad day, to cry in the bathroom once in a while, to feel overwhelmed or at their limit and express that?

What is the norm regarding emotional expression? Are employees heard when they express a boundary or an access need, and are they heard the first time? Organizations can go far when they ask themselves these hard questions, and change their policies and approach to internal relationships based on the answers.

When an employee does appear to be in crisis or having a difficult time, first off, consider your own assumptions. Do they actually seem upset, and if so, is feeling upset reasonable in the specific situation they are in? Have they behaved in a way that is unprofessional or inappropriate, or, as can happen even when organizations are well-meaning, is this person simply being pathologized for behaving in a way that is not in line with their apparent identities?

Recall for example that women are often perceived to be behaving inappropriately when we express anger or verbalize access needs, men are often perceived to be in crisis when they seem sad or depressed, Black women in particular are pathologized when they express themselves assertively. Consider your own assumptions before addressing this employee.

Recall that being very emotional in response to triggering or stressful situations is not necessarily a sign of crisis. Consider whether this person’s behavior is becoming a pattern, or if they might simply be having a bad day or responding to events in their personal life.

Beyond that, if you are genuinely worried for someone, ask a neutral third party to step in. HR should be having these conversations. If someone’s supervisor steps in, there is an unfortunate power dynamic involved that will make for a severely unproductive conversation.

Make sure the goal of the conversation is not to force this person to open up or share their emotions with a stranger. Instead, ask this person whether there is anything they need. How is their support system? Would it be helpful to know about some community resources? Speak from a place of care. Make sure this person knows you are not shaming them or threatening their job. Instead, tell them that they are a valued member of the community and you would like to see what you can do to help them feel more taken care of.

Make sure you do not make assumptions about what resources this person may already have in place. Do not bust in offering resources the person has not expressed interest in. Instead, help the person to create a plan to manage their own emotions and behavior.

Also, make sure you are open to hearing that the cause of their behavior might be closer to home than you think. This person might be experiencing job stresses you are not aware of. Perhaps they are being bullied or harassed on the job, and you had no idea. Make sure this is truly a conversation, an open dialogue, rather than you descending from your place of superiority on high to help someone you perceive as inferior to yourself. Your job here is to offer support, not charity. You are their community member, not their guardian angel and not their parent. The better you can stick to your role, the more you can normalize what they are going through.

Lastly, remember that many people are going through severe struggles right now. Between increasing rates of chronic illness, the climate crisis, financial struggles, and discrimination and oppression, everyone is dealing with something these days. Don’t let your beliefs about mental health get in the way of recognizing that what they are feeling is most likely extremely valid. Your goal is to normalize their feelings and support them in expressing their feelings in a way that is healthier for themselves and the workplace. Their emotions, though, are undoubtedly valid.

How can companies create a supportive environment for employees to openly discuss mental health and seek help when needed? Share examples of successful communication and resources that have made a difference in your organization.

Ariadne Wolf: Organizations do best when they are very clear about their own boundaries and expectations of employees. They struggle most when they attempt to be a “family atmosphere,” fostering a false sense of intimacy that is belied by the simple realities of the workplace. It is often extremely damaging to create an environment where, for example, it is normalized for supervisors to regularly offer hugs to the staff members under their purview.

Similarly, it is not ideal for organizations to have the goal of offering primary mental health support to their employees. Organizations who attempt to do this often inadvertently create an environment where employees feel significant pressure to express only an upbeat, cheerful demeanor, in order to be popular and to not bring down group morale. This culture does not allow employees to have bad days, or struggle through painful experiences.

Some workplaces are triggering by nature. Nonprofit organizations that address community needs, hotline work, police stations, hospitals, all regularly expose staff members to the extremes of the human condition. Having a strong emotional reaction to what you see and hear in any of these positions is simply being human. In any of these kinds of organizations that offer services to underserved or traumatized or wounded or harmed members of the community, staff members need to have opportunities for self-care or they will eventually be overwhelmed with all the emotions they have repressed.

For any organization where employees are regularly exposed to different types of violence, it is absolutely vital to normalize self-care on the job. How are you teaching new employees to set boundaries with clients/patients, to limit their level of emotional involvement without compromising professional ethics and duty of care? When an employee does feel overwhelmed on the job, which is totally normal in these situations, where can they go? Is the employee breakroom a place of gossip and hierarchical assertions, or is it a place of safety and peace, where employees can go to seek support from each other?

How can you normalize community care in the workplace through physical design? Is there any safe space on site for employees to go to have some privacy, other than the bathroom? Are there paper towels? Do employees feel safe taking “bio breaks” whenever they need to, and use these breaks for emotional self-care as well as physical?

When you look around, what do you see in employees’ body language and different types of self-expression? Are their movements abrupt and awkward? Do they seem constantly tense and stressed out–and when someone is stressed, do others respond by asking them what’s wrong, or by distancing themselves? What happens when someone steps out of line, and how do others communicate this fact and redraw this boundary? What types of conflict resolution are implemented in your organization, how often are they used, do they work?

When someone sets a boundary, is it immediately heard and respected, or not?
When you create an organization that is itself healthy, your employees will develop a sense of safety that is reflected in their ability to trust each other with their needs and emotions. When that happens, employees will naturally build healthy friendships and begin to communicate when they do not feel mentally well.

Too often, organizational leadership locates a large topic like Mental Health and tries to address it without taking the entire organizational culture into account. Yet there is no way for an organization to confidently or safely address any interpersonal topic without making sure the structure of the organization itself is operating effectively.
Otherwise, you will end up pathologizing those of your employees who are already struggling, while ignoring the ways you can create a safe environment for them.

Often, the best thing you can do is be a place of calm and clearheaded competence, rather than an added source of stress in someone’s life.

What role can training and education play in fostering mental health awareness in the workplace? Share your experience with impactful workshops, seminars, or training programs that have contributed to a better understanding and support of mental health among employees.

Ariadne Wolf:
Many organizations would benefit from being trauma-informed. Any organization that does direct service work would do well to learn these principles, both to help employees take care of themselves and to better address the needs of your clients. The correct training will vary depending on your field, but always begin by training your leadership together, and then train the rest of the staff, ideally divided into teams that already have relationships with one another and something of a sense of safety developed between you.

Understanding how to build a truly accessible organization is extremely helpful, and not just for your disabled employees. Nearly everyone’s life has been touched by some form of mental illness, physical challenge, chronic illness, or chronic condition like migraines or acid reflux. Implementing universal design principles means creating a space where people with physical, mental, or psychological differences can flourish, where bodies and psychological selves are taken care of. That improves access to care for us all.

Trainings in boundaries, their correct use and their importance, serve everybody.
I recommend against “suicide first aid” type trainings, because I think they encourage the pathologization of people struggling with mental health. What you don’t want to do is have all of your employees surveilling each other for “signs of mental illness,” then reporting their perspectives to HR. This creates an atmosphere of scapegoating and lack of safety. Instead, build in trainings on emotional intelligence and community care. This will encourage employees to consider their needs without pathologizing people who are already struggling.

Lastly, trainings that address implicit bias and stereotyping are extremely useful. For example, when addressing mental health, many people picture the stereotype of that Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, because the image we have been raised with is a passionate and emotional woman carried away by her inappropriate feelings. Yet statistically, the people most likely to both self-harm through suicide and to harm others are white able-bodied men. I mention this not to pathologize anybody, but to direct awareness to the fact that when most of us picture someone who is “struggling with mental health,” the image that comes to mind is an amalgamation of Hollywood and sexist, ableist stereotypes of what “struggle” looks like, and not a very strong reflection of reality at all.

Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to WellnessVoice and the host of this interview would like to thank Ariadne Wolf for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.

If you would like to get in touch with Ariadne Wolf or her company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page

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