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Cultivating Mental Wellness in Our Virtual World

short haired young woman with eyes closed enjoying the sun

By Anna Cork, VP, Employee Experience

Not that there is anything wrong with a good party, yet it was common practice in most organizations where I worked early in my career to assign “party planning” functions to the HR team. As the years passed, wellness contests a la “Biggest Loser” joined the activity list we managed. Executives I worked with often challenged the ROI in fun or questioned the benefit of subsidizing fitness activities if they couldn’t control how often they took place…obviously not subscribers to the Field of Dreams theory, “If you build it, they will come.” In this new world, however, those who doubt the benefits of self-care can fit together in a very small room (standing six feet apart, of course).

I’ve always thought of wellness as being comprised of four major buckets – Physical, Psychological, Social and Financial. By Anna Cork, VP Employee ExperienceWhile some have argued that these areas shouldn’t be corporate responsibility, in reality the fun and social holiday parties, health-focused weight loss contests, along with 401k matches and income protection benefits, have fallen under the HR/Employee Experience umbrella for quite some time. While we’ve been reluctant to embrace mental health, it’s clear as I sit in webinar after webinar on the side effects of the global pandemic, that we can no longer deny psychological wellness as something that impacts the employee experience, and more importantly, something that we can and should have an impact on as employers.

Let’s take a look at some numbers, for those who are still unsure. Millennials comprise half of the global workforce, and their lives have been shaped by two major economic collapses, high divorce rates among their parents, a student loan debt crisis and wealth disparity that fueled the “hustle culture,” oh, and a global pandemic.

A 2019 report from Blue Cross Blue Shield Association found that major depression diagnosis increased 47% specifically among the millennial generation since 2013. That’s about a quarter of our workforce potentially battling depression. (For anyone reading who thinks this article is heading in the direction of yet another rant about Millennials, rest assured that it is not). The American Psychological Association notes that about 12% of Millennials have been officially diagnosed with an anxiety disorder – nearly double the percentage of Baby Boomers.

To connect this all back to ROI and the Cycle of Motivation, try googling “anxiety and depression and burnout”, “burnout and productivity” or “burnout and loss of profit.” Rounding things out, the results of a very recent CDC survey finds that more than 4 in 10 Americans are struggling with mental health issues that are a direct result of the social distancing and stay-at-home orders put in place to stop the pandemic. You get the picture. So where do we start?

Perhaps we should take a page from the Millennial playbook on transparency and the 2020 theme of “getting comfortable being uncomfortable” as we open up dialogue with our employees on their wellness concerns. What strength lies in communicating our intention to change our behaviors, catching people in the act of living their best lives and crystalizing those behaviors through rewards and recognition? There are a number of practices that, on the individual level, fuel happiness and well-being. Imagine the power of adopting them at the organizational level.

Nurturing relationships and cultivating a culture of kindness are forms of reward and recognition themselves—and build a foundation of trust. While they may not connect directly to reward points or tangible gifts, both of these elements help foster a sense of belonging on a team and in the organization. As a leader and a teammate, you can recognize others for doing these things. A Note of Gratitude, that doesn’t have monetary value, is a nice way to let a team member or manager know that you appreciate them checking in on a colleague having a tough time juggling their work and their children’s remote learning, or that you noticed their gentle efforts to draw a socially isolated or withdrawn colleague into a collaborative conversation.

Another key opportunity for all of us is to relax into things and go with the flow. The days of transmitting anxiety and stress through our keyboards must end. I am certainly not advocating disregard for timelines and having a sense of urgency, but we really need to embrace the idea that not everything is an emergency. Rather than rewarding employees who constantly burn the midnight oil, skip lunch and bathroom breaks as if work were a road rally and stay glued to their home office chairs in fear of missing an email, we should comment openly and encourage those who exhibit healthier behaviors.

Thank someone for taking their time to provide a thoughtful response. Cheer on a colleague who posts a water bottle or a pair of trainers as their “away” status on slack. Hydration, nutrition and movement are important, so encourage people who schedule these important moments in the day and treat them as inviolable.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to promote movement as an essential work duty for a mentally healthy workforce. Mind and body are intimately connected, and the way we move – or the ways we don’t move – affect the ways we think and feel. The ways we think and feel affect the way we work from the quality of our output to our productivity to our ability to forge meaningful relationships with our coworkers. This practice seems like the easiest one to connect to tangible reward and recognition.

For example, think about creating an inclusive movement challenge using step counters or odometers. Set your challenge goals high but stay focused on the positive by building multiple ways to win into your setup. Reward a participant who moves every day, someone who moves the most in one day, or an employee who has the best week at a time. Use your internal chat tools to encourage one another, showcase creativity and build adaptive camaraderie in our virtual world. The neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert said, “We have a brain for one reason and one reason only – that’s to produce adaptable and complex movements. Movement is the only way you have of affecting the world around you…” — even if it is a virtual one!

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