The past several months should turn our traditional thinking about safe working environments on its head — and I’m not talking about changes to a physical space like air purifiers and self-sanitizing elevator buttons. Right now, a safe workplace is about individual protections, from freedom from risk of injury to freedom from coercion, intimidation or harassment.
The shift I have in mind is an unquestioned freedom to raise your hand and say some version of, “I’m not okay,” and to do that without risk of being ignored or stigmatized.
Bob Woodward likes to say that in his experience as a journalist, the four most powerful words in the English language are, “I need your help.” In my experience in small business — and now at a business with a global footprint — those are also four of the hardest words for people in business to say out loud.
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Virus or no virus, work environments that suppress the freedom to let somebody know when you’re feeling anxious, stressed, confused or burnt out reflect cultures and leadership that are unhealthy and counterproductive.
Now more than ever, when a global health crisis is infiltrating every aspect of our lives — with no material change to the new status quo in sight – we’re depleting our reserves of optimism and resilience. The toll is starting to show.
In our recent survey of issues and attitudes directly related to the health crisis, small business owners in the United States rated the health and well-being of their employees as a priority on par with issues of cash flow, and ahead of concerns about losing existing customers. Forty-one percent of small business owners expressed concern about their own mental health.
The crisis is revealing year another fundamental difference between big and small business. Small business is more personal. There are no degrees of separation. The choices are devastatingly difficult, because there’s a face and a family attached to every decision on employment, compensation and whether the business can go on or not.
Yet it’s hard for small business owners to put their hand in the air and utter those four words: “I need your help.” Among the owners we surveyed this summer, nearly 40 percent said they never even asked an outside advisor for guidance on financial issues related to the virus.
It makes me wonder. How many of those owners would think nothing of hiring a personal fitness trainer? But asking for help from a financial advisor or mental well-being advisor? Acknowledging that we don’t have it all figured out? If those choices still carry some kind of misplaced hint of weakness, how open is the rest of the organization to the notion of human vulnerability?
I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers, but here are some things I’m working on.
Antennas at full extension
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Most people I work with are very good at handling fixed issues or situations, but this is not that kind of problem. The indefinite nature of its duration creates its own kind of stress. I need to ask how people are doing, listen, and more than that, be prepared to take atypical actions for an atypical situation. For example: We’re coming up on the close of our financial reporting period. I can sense the fatigue, and I’m encouraging sales leaders to take an extra day off. That’s not kindness or altruism. It’s a straight investment in the health of our company and our people.
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Rest is a weapon
In U.S. culture — more so than most of the rest of the world — a lot of people leave vacation days unused, and taking more than a week at a time can feel overly indulgent. Now, working from home might even exacerbate that tendency. I hope not, and we’re working to make sure that’s not the case.
Formalizing time off
Early in the onset of the crisis, we increased general wellness days available to our U.S. employees from five to 10, and local managers have a high degree of discretion in handling individual situations. We also granted an extra wellness day in support of World Mental Health Day.
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The value of role models
Our values are grounded on something we call #human. I’m fortunate to work for people who walk the talk — open, connected, proactive and unafraid to talk about their own vulnerabilities. That creates a workplace where people know they are free to do the same. Leaders set that example.
Personally, I’m trying to remember that some of the old standbys – comfort food, a Netflix binge – aren’t my best long-term choices. In pursuit of healthier alternatives, I’m also reminding myself that I don’t have to go from where I am today to running marathons. Incremental steps are better than assigning myself another monumental task and stressing over my lack of progress.
As I write this, I’m aware that I’m exhausted, and that tomorrow is Friday. I’m taking it off, and everything I do next week will be better because of it.
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