Trauma Expert Shares Four Leadership Strategies To Support Employee Mental Health – Forbes


Leader listening to her team member
Employee mental health is no longer something companies can ignore. Studies suggest that 40% of the U.S. adult population may be experiencing adverse mental health impacts as a result of the pandemic, with 26% showing clinical symptoms of a trauma-related disorder. This is the first time in recent history that organizations have had to consider the mental health needs of their workforce as a central concern to the overall health of their business.
Following the pandemic, 70% of employers report they plan to start, continue, or expand investing in mental health benefits. But according to Rebecca Brown, a professor of social work specializing in trauma, and Employee Assistance Program provider for L.L.Bean Inc, improving benefits alone will not address the whole problem. She shares that in the post-pandemic workplace, companies will need to prioritize human healing alongside production.
Brown, also an organizational consultant and mental health clinician, advocates that in addition to increasing mental health benefits, organizations must also help leaders understand the impact of recent events, normalize pandemic adversity, and apply strategies that support healing for employees and the organization as a whole. Here are a few ways leaders can do this.
Although the worst of the pandemic may be over, the impact on people’s mental health is not. According to Brown, it is crucial that leaders don’t try and rush back to business as usual and instead, acknowledge that employees may have experienced fundamental shifts in their values, perspectives, thoughts, and feelings as a result of the last few years. Leaders should expect a wide range of responses from employees and recognize that these are normal consequences of what people have experienced both personally and professionally. 
Employees may be responding by:

When leaders see these behaviors, it is important to remember they may be possible consequences of the pandemic and not always an indication of a lack of competence. Instead of going straight to correction of behavior or feedback, leaders should pause, reflect, and then check in with curiosity.
Brown recommends that leaders practice more broadly acknowledging the changes and impacts that may have taken place for individuals and their teams. This can create an environment where employees feel safe enough to share. At L.L.Bean, “I have seen employees express authentic gratitude when leaders take the time to pause and name these shared experiences and commonalities. It creates connection and can decrease feelings of isolation.”
One of the most important actions leaders can take is to just listen to their people. Brown encourages leaders to keep in mind “When people are struggling, they often just need someone to bear witness to their pain, to acknowledge their experience, and to sit beside them in the mess of it all. This is part of the recovery process.” Brown acknowledges that leaders who are used to feeling competent, having answers, and being expert problem solvers may feel uncomfortable when they have an employee who is struggling, but being present and listening without judgement is often the best way to offer support.  “Sitting with this discomfort alongside an employee can be a powerful step towards moving forward and feeling supported by leaders and the organization as a whole.”  
Meaning-making is a powerful way for human beings to move beyond adverse events and adapt to new realities. Leaders can help support their people by paying attention to how their employees’ perspectives have shifted or changed over the past two years.
To do this, leaders should take time to explore individually and collectively how employees are thinking about their work and how they have changed. By allowing employees to apply these new perspectives and insights to how they will approach work in the future, they can maximize the potential for post-pandemic growth. 
Leaders can ask questions such as, “How has this experience changed your approach to your work?” “What have you learned about yourself or your job and how would you like to apply this learning to your future work?” Creating meaning in the workplace can be a helpful step in building hope for the future.
It is important for leaders to share how they are setting boundaries, stepping away, and taking care … [+] of themselves, and celebrating when others do the same.
While attending to overall wellness needs is essential in times of stress, leaders need to go beyond just encouraging people to practice self-care and instead, nurture an environment of self-attention. Brown shares that while highlighting wellness perks can be helpful in the short term, putting the responsibility of wellness only on the employee further shifts the burden of healing back to the individual who may be already struggling. In her work as an EAP provider to teams at L.L.Bean Inc., she regularly hears from employees how grateful they are to be part of a company that values their wellbeing, especially in this extraordinary moment in time, and provides active support. 
It’s about employing organizational strategies that provide opportunities for rest, regulation, and reflection. As a leader with significant influence on the culture of their teams, this can be accomplished through simple actions. 

Brown stresses that workplace strategies don’t take the place of necessary behavioral health treatment for those who are experiencing mental health symptoms. It is paramount that people who are in need of treatment and additional support get to the appropriate level of care. She also shares that “recovery and healing are not linear. There will be moments of significant discomfort and moments of triumph, but if leaders aim to understand their employee’s pandemic experiences and attend to what is helping them cope and adjust today, they can become agents of hope. And hope can be a powerful sustaining force in the workplace.”
The impact of the pandemic on employees’ wellbeing is far from over.  Leaders who seize the opportunity to lead with compassion and prioritize post-pandemic adjustment, will have a resilient and capable workforce invested in organizational success. For leaders, being part of the healing process is not only good for business, it means being part of the greater good.



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