Mental Health, Trust and Support in the Workplace
When I was asked to write this article, I agreed immediately without hesitation. Being a psychotherapist for 10 years I feel it’s important to pass on parts of the human experience in an effort to keep evolving and growing as a species. I am in the very privileged position of being able to hear the intimate details of people’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings, it can feel like a behind the scenes glimpse into their lives at times. Although it is difficult to generalize our experiences, there are common themes, one of them being work and our relationship to work. When you think about how much time is devoted to work it is often more than is spent with family and friends, making it one of the most important relationships in life for both employers and employees. Like all relationships, healthy and meaningful ones are largely based on effective and open communication.
When people discuss work with me, they are often surprised when I put it into the context of a relationship that does not differ very much from that of family and friends. All relationships are based on an exchange of needs and the workplace is just a more clearly identified and defined contract. The issue that often arises for people is the power imbalance created by employers who believe that inciting fear generates increased productivity and motivation when in fact the opposite is true.
One of the most common issues that I hear about from front line to management is feeling a lack of trust and support. These feelings can be magnified when you consider all the baggage that humans come with, past traumas, unhealthy learned behaviours and sometimes competing or ulterior motivations. However, the solution to these complex interactions and dealings is always the same: healthy assertive and direct communication. If workplaces incorporated programs to help people learn some of the fundamental of assertive communication, issues within the workplace would be solved with greater efficiency leading to increased employee retention, productivity, and overall workplace wellness.
What causes lack of trust and support in the workplace? One of the main contributing factors is people at the top making decisions for people at the front line without enough accurate information. Why do the people at the front line not share their valuable insights and suggestions? Because they are not going to risk speaking up if they feel like it will compromise fundamental needs such as income or potential promotion. I have heard so many examples of people saying, “my boss says my door is always open but if I try and make a suggestion it never actually happens” or “I don’t understand why my team didn’t bring this up earlier, and now I have to fix everything”. The common thread is ineffective communication based in lack of trust. Interestingly, creating trust in the workplace (and any relationship for that matter) is not necessarily complicated in theory. It essentially involves the ability to create open dialogue free of judgement, prejudice, bias or criticism. The trick is listening and actually hearing, reinforcing a sense of safety using validating language. This is much easier in theory than in practice, particularly if you consider demanding workplaces with deadlines and high expectations. I sometimes hear people say, “it’s okay I thrive under pressure”. This can be true in some cases, for highly effective and efficient people pressure can kick motivation into high gear producing impressive results. However, when humans feel safe, supported and a strong sense of trust we are generally at our peak creativity and our ability to thrive soars.
Think about your closest relationships in your life, the people you feel the most at ease with and connected to, imaging creating workplaces that illicit similar levels of meaning. It starts with people feeling safe to share their experiences and feel that they are heard. And it works both ways.
I remember working on a team where a very small percentage of the group was not carrying their weight. The entire team knew this and finally had enough. They brought it up to management. Instead of speaking assertively to these individuals directly my manager held a team meeting and reprimanded the entire team, resulting in most of the team feeling alienated and defeated. Morale was lowered and my problematic teammates felt more empowered to continue slacking. This always stuck with me as a great example of how assertive communication could have created an entirely different outcome. If my boss had the skills to use tools of empowerment and strength-based language, she may have been able to encourage my teammates to become contributing members or at least hold them to account and empower the rest of the team.
One strategy that is often used in mediation is to establish common goals, this can be very constructive in the workplace as well. Asking people what they want and what their expectations are is empowering. For example, I want to feel that we can talk openly about the issues that require improvement, is that important to you as well?
Once trust and open communication is established some other fundamental principles are important to consider. Workplaces must generate actual results beyond just positive vibes. During the pandemic we have seen mass resignations and a major shift in how and why we work. There are currently many shortages of employees from hourly paid labour to highly skilled and specialized workers. Since industrialization humans rarely questioned why we punched the clock for 40 hours a week in traditionally 9-5 jobs, even when many jobs did not require these conventional hours. The pandemic forced us to become adaptable, flexible, and created change that many did not think was possible. We saw many examples of human ingenuity at its finest, people working from home on mass, moving from boardrooms and meeting spaces to virtual. Times of great change in human history often promote struggle, challenge, and a more evolved sense of self as individuals and as a species. For many this meant re-evaluating work life balance.
The balance of work productivity and individual freedom has evolved as mobility and resource has become more attainable and plentiful. The old ideals of the harder and more you work the more deserving you are of success and getting what you want out of life, societal valuing of the workaholic is slowly changing. Humans are recognizing that time is their greatest commodity, but how do we reconcile pursuing our passions with the benefits and necessity of work?
Employers who recognize and respect the need for both typically have mentally healthy and fulfilled employees. My clients who have described healthy work environments often have a deep sense of loyalty to their company or management. This is created by employers who trust their employees if they are expressing burnout, or employees who are rewarded or encouraged to take time off. Employees who do take time off for various reasons have expressed deep gratitude when employers express a genuine interest in their recovery and healing versus pressure to return to the workplace. No matter what industry you work in the one common denominator is that we are all human beings trying to find our way through life, our place in the world and our connection to each other. When we focus on our humanity first and productivity second, we typically foster a deeper sense of compassion, kindness, and relatability.
I have some friends in the business world who I have discussed these concepts with. Over the years I have been met with dismissive comments and an overall disinterest, but since the pandemic and demand for talented employees more and more leaders in industry are becoming open to investing in their workers. Additionally, some of those leaders have re-evaluated their own values, concluding that humans are complex, and our identities are defined by so much more than our work.
The pandemic has impacted us in so many ways, it will take us years to unravel the true magnitude. Living during a time of great change can be both frightening and exciting, it can also be difficult to recognize when you are in the midst of it. For those of us who choose to believe self-actualization is possible and we have only scratched the surface of human potential, this moment feels like we are on the cusp of something great. If we can look at each other and see that human condition that exists in each one of us, we can embrace a truly meaningful existence in our work, our homes, and our hearts.
About Jody Copeland
MA Counselling Psychology, Registered Psychotherapist (RP), EMDR Clinician
Jody is a Registered Psychotherapist and has been working in the mental health field for over 15 years. Jody opened her own trauma-based practice 7 years ago and has been growing ever since.