A couple years ago, as my wife and I were returning home from an employee engagement conference where I had spoken, she said something to me that I didn’t fully understand at the time.
I remember it sounding something like this.
“The content here was good, but it was all focused on the happy, positive side of being human at work. Where’s the conversation about all of the hard, painful stuff that humans bring with them to work? Why wasn’t anyone talking about that?”
I agreed with her because she’s always right (joking, kind of). But, the gravity of her wisdom didn’t set in with me until much later.
As I started to pay closer attention to the conversations happening about making the workplace more human, I started to notice what she was talking about. Most of the focus is on how to create a more connected, inclusive, mindful, nourishing, affirming work experience for employees.
All great stuff. All important stuff. Do that.
The problem, however, is that humans carry with us a lot of baggage when we show up to work each day. Regardless of how much we try to convince ourselves of the separation between work and life, it’s a lie.
Remember, work for employees is a relationship. The test of a good relationship is how you show up when things aren’t so good. The friendships that sustain are with those who are not only around when it’s time to celebrate, they also show up when things are hard (through an illness or breakup, etc.). It’s how they show up in these moments that creates the commitment and loyalty that lasts.
The same is true of the work relationship. It’s great that you celebrate victories and birthdays and new childbirths, but how do you show up during hardship and tragedy? That’s where the rubber meets the road.
This came into stark focus for me last week when I attended and spoke at the WELCOA Summit, the premier event for workplace wellness professionals. It seems that while most of us focus on creating the shining, happy workplace where all humans are welcome, these wellness champions are the ones worrying about the not so shiny, not so happy reality of being human.
The opening keynote by Mettie Spiess is a shining example of what I now realize is the real work of creating a truly human workplace. She sharing her gut-wrenching personal story of losing both of her brothers to suicide and of her own experience of living with mental illness. Her life’s purpose is to create a world without suicide. And she believes that’s possible, but not unless we make some major changes.
The statistics on suicide and mental health in the U.S. are alarming, to put it lightly.
Here’s the truth. Even if you have created an amazing, engaging workplace–these stats make clear that there are people walking through the door at your workplace each day who are silently suffering, maybe fighting a solo battle for their survival.
The bad news is that they aren’t likely to find much support at work because we aren’t looking for them. It’s easy to ignore the realities of mental illness unless you or someone you love is living with it. And to make matters worse, there’s such a negative stigma around mental illness (i.e. “I didn’t know you were crazy”) that it rarely feels safe to ask for help–even when there’s some sort of structure in place to do so.
One of the core messages I took from Mettie is that we must dramatically raise awareness and kill the stigma around mental health. To do this, we have to be very intentional in our efforts around education and awareness of mental illness and suicide in the workplace.
But beyond that, she reinforced the importance and power of authentic human connection and compassion to break some of these cycles. The CDC identified social connectedness as a key factor in the prevention of suicide. Fostering the creation and formation of healthy relationships through work could literally save someone’s life.
But, so too can showing care and concern. Simply paying attention to others and asking “how are you doing?” can make all the difference. This seems so simple and obvious but is easy to neglect in our steadfast commitment to being “busy” all the time.
Suicide and mental health probably feel pretty uncomfortable to read about, let alone talk about. I know. For me too.
But I think this is the essence of the work to create truly “human” places of work. We must create a place where humans connect together to not only create work product together but also to find belonging and acknowledgment and support–real support for both the good stuff and the bad.
Even the people in your work lives who seem to have it all together on the outside are probably struggling with something beneath the surface. It might not be mental illness or suicide, but it might be something that feels just as debilitating to them.
Maybe they are experiencing burnout.
Or maybe they are suffering abuse at the hands of an intimate partner. (20 people per minute are abused by an intimate partner in the U.S. and some of them work for you.)
Many are suffering from serious financial stress. One study reveals that 1 in 4 Americans suffers from PTSD like symptoms caused by financial stress.
The list goes on. Life is hard and the challenges are real.
If we are going to create a truly “human” company, this is the hard work. It’s not enough to simply focus on appreciation and connection and encouragement. We must also make room and provide support for the other side of the human equation.
Creating an engaging work experience for employees is meaningful, important work. But, changing or saving someone’s life is a whole different level of impact that we can and should have on the people who we employ.
© Jason Lauritsen All rights reserved.