How Internal Communications can support mental health in uncertain times?

The World Mental Health Day, observed on 10 October, is a great occasion to have a look into how Internal Communications can raise awareness of mental health and support it within organizations.

More and more companies realize the importance of mental health as they see its impact on employees’ performance. They introduce dedicated programs to help those who suffer from psychological issues. However, still many organizations focus on offering apples and yoga sessions to healthy people rather than on teaching them how to build emotional self-awareness and identify symptoms of distress in themselves and colleagues around.

Internal Comms is in the right position in the organization to encourage behaviors and drive activities that support mental health, especially in front of any factors that can trigger anxiety among employees. Those triggers might be numerous, ranging from organizational changes to major strategy shift, to global pandemics. And even including private reasons that the employer can also help to deal with.

First things first

People naturally feel anxious in front of the future that is unknown. So if your company finds itself in the situation of a major change or crisis, the first thing to do is to reassure your people that you know where you’re heading.

Remind your employees what the mission and vision of your company are, communicate your strategy and any changes that it requires in the new circumstances. Make priorities clear so that people know which projects to focus on.

This, of course, is not enough to help calm down anxiety. For that, it’s key to inform people about the impact that changes have directly on them. Unless they know what to expect in terms of their employment, they won’t be able to focus on their daily tasks. Make any people-related plans as transparent as possible, informing of risks and steps around potential restructuring or reductions, payroll, location, work shifts and any other ways of working.

Don’t forget to listen to your people. You need to know what’s important to them, how they feel about what’s going on, how their mood is changing, what might help them to go smoother through the hard times. They might also have ideas on how to push the business further or solve a couple of issues. You wouldn’t want to miss any of those, so enable a listening and answering loop for continuous conversation with your staff.

Be aware yourself

When you plan how to tackle your change or crisis comms with mental health in mind, take into account how people react under stress.

The unknown future is all about risk which is hard to assess and towards which people have different attitudes and preferences. Their reaction will largely depend on what kind of risk the situation involves and how big it is. If it brings too much insecurity, then anxiety and fear take over. This is when you might observe unexpected behaviors, increased introversion, people being irritable, frustrated, talking short, cancelling meetings, having reduced decision-making powers and lower than normally attention to details.

To deal with difficulties, people turn to coping mechanisms. Those are activities and behaviors that calm down stress, however they’re not always healthy (like drinking alcohol).

The one that people need the most to restore their psychological safety in front of risk and uncertainty is to take back control. The good way to do that is to focus on what you really can control, such as your schedule, work plan or decorating your workplace. But there’s also the wrong way to do that which is, like in case of the current pandemics, absorbing more and more news with hope to understand the situation better. Instead of regaining control, people feel even more stressed, confused and overwhelmed, and put themselves in a hyper alert state.

Build a mindful communication plan

To answer basic coping needs in uncertain times, you have to put a lot of attention not only to what you communicate, but also how.

Your tone should be clear and informative, but no matter how serious the situation is, it shouldn’t additionally bring people down. For instance avoid ambiguous formulations that can put catastrophizing minds to work. Make your tone reassuring and find topics where you can make it lighthearted and fun, not to trivialize, but to ventilate the atmosphere.

Also, be trustworthy and deliver consistently, even if you never promised anything out loud. Give people a feeling of stability and control by following predictable frequency and using a chosen set of channels. Define one source of truth and align everything else with it. If anyone feels confused, they have to know where and when to go, to confirm what the reality looks like.

Work with your leaders to help them become even more visible as people will naturally turn to them for reassurance. Most leaders understand the importance of their presence in hard times, but many simply don’t know how to do it right. Little help with choice of channels, comms style and message alignment might do miracles to make people see the captain not only knows the direction but also holds the steering wheel.

Inform, teach and connect

The other function that focuses on people is obviously HR. Join forces and work together to make an even stronger positive impact on your employees’ mental health. Your cooperation in this matter will bring the best results if it’s a long-term, daily alliance, not just a crisis-mitigating project.

Keep in mind that same as with our physical health, we should take care of our wellbeing on a daily basis. You don’t become fit because you once went for a walk, and you don’t have strong immunity because you just ate a carrot, do you? Mental health is exactly the same. Not only you can, but you should develop it like a muscle. The stronger your resilience becomes, the easier it will be for you to bounce back after you fail and overcome difficulties without losing health or optimism.

To start with, check what mental health oriented program you already have. And if there’s none, kick off the discussion with management and HR to bring it to life. Make sure there’s professional medical help available and inform your employees that they can use it and how. Don’t get discouraged if people don’t use the program even for a longer time. There are many prejudices when it comes to reaching out for mental support which makes people shy away from asking for help.

Back up your informative activities with a mental health awareness campaign. Use professional psychological services to gather information and build the content to share. Teach your staff to recognize the symptoms of distress, help them understand what behaviors anxiety triggers and how coping mechanisms work. Explain what solutions they have at hand when they need support and how to talk to others who might be going through tough times.

If, like this year, your company is forced to operate remotely, prevent the feeling of isolation by involving your employees in preparation of this or any other company-wide programs. Human beings are social creatures and we need regular close contact with others to satisfy our need for belonging.

Towards empathetic management

Another big topic to touch on is supporting managers so that they know how to handle mental health in their teams.

Managers are a natural first point of contact for any issues that may arise. Their team members turn to them when the company enters a difficult time, and they’re instinctively being treated as role models for reactions and behaviors. If anyone suffers mentally, there’s a high chance the manager will quickly notice the signs of distress. And for sure they’ll be in a natural position to start a conversation leading to offering solutions.
Quite a lot on their shoulders, right?

Supporting managers means offering them development opportunities so that they not only build awareness around mental health as such, but also know how to support others, how to hold empathetic conversations, what help is available, how much responsibility is on them, where are the limits of their involvement and how to do all of that when they might feel vulnerable and uncertain themselves.

Here again, it will be crucial to cooperate with professional psychological care to put together managerial guidelines with accurate information, but also to encourage managers to get in touch with psychologists for consultations on what to do in a given case in their team.

From the purely communicational perspective, you can focus on equipping the guidelines with a list of questions that managers can use in conversations around feelings, mood and mental condition.

Cultural foundations for mental health

For an organization to be holistically supportive to mental health, it needs to be based on the right foundations. Handling difficult situations is by far more stressful and less efficient in an unfavorable environment which might have its roots in the organization’s culture. A truly mentally healthy workplace is built on a culture of trust where everyone, from operational employees to senior leaders, feels comfortable with admitting they’re vulnerable.

But trust isn’t built overnight. It requires consistent behaviors and attitudes such as allowing those who made a mistake to admit it and improve, putting problem-solving over blame, or recognizing how people achieved goals instead of just measuring performance against exorbitant targets.

For that, have a deep and honest look into your company culture. Analyze your values and behaviors they support. Don’t limit yourself to what you have on paper, but look closely into what happens in reality.

Last but not least

Mental health became a focus topic during the current covid-19 pandemics. So many of us have found ourselves closed at home, working remotely, and above all uncertain of the future. Taking time to find ways to support employees psychologically is more important for employers than ever. Let’s use this opportunity as solutions we manage to work out today will pay off not only now, but also in the future, in any other difficult situation that may come, be it another crisis or a major change.

At the same time, don’t forget about yourself and your own mental condition. According to the survey mentioned by Rachel Miller “60% of the PR and Communications industry have suffered from or been diagnosed with mental ill health”. 

Written by Diana Bonczar

Published on 8 October 2020

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