Leadership and Mental Health

It's important that leadership and mental health go hand-in-hand. As a whole, workplace mental health is a topic a lot of people prefer to avoid because any topic concerning mental and emotional status remains stigmatized to a large degree. Unfortunately, the stigma is due to a lack of knowledge about what "mental health" means. Some envision an employee ready to go over the edge and become violent or someone who is emotionally volatile and not to be trusted. They imagine an employee who suddenly goes into a rage and does personal harm or harms others.

The truth is much different. Approximately one out of every five Americans are living with a mental health condition. Many manage to hide it because they fear discrimination, rejection, and loss of a job. They quietly go about their jobs, privately suffering, taking an excessive number of sick leave days, or experiencing frequent injuries on the job that are due to inattention and not to employer workplace safety issues. 

Unions inevitably blame the employer, but employee stress can be due to factors the employer has no control over, like personal finances, divorce, or a medical condition. People don't leave personal stress at the door when they show up for work.

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Psychological, Emotional, and Social Well-Being

It's important to understand that mental health is an all-encompassing term that refers to a person's psychological and emotional well-being. The federal government also includes social well-being, or how a person relates to others. While the umbrella term 'mental health issues' certainly does include well-known medical conditions, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and clinical depression, it also includes stress and anxiety that becomes debilitating to any degree and in various ways. 

Stress is not an illness, but there is a connection between stress and anxiety. Normal stress is a physical change that comes and goes based on events occurring. It's not meant to be a long-term response – just a temporary one that can actually improve thinking skills and help a person make decisions that are personally good. However, workplace stress can become long-term or prolonged stress in which the body is unable to return to a normal state. It takes a mental and physical toll.

Unions Turn Stress into a Foothold

In the workplace, stress, anxiety, and depression are major mental health issues that negatively impact an employee's ability to make good decisions, maintain productivity and connect with others. People feeling high levels of stress aren't likely to feel engaged in their work. Stress can certainly stop a person from realizing their full potential. Stressed employees tend to have low morale, see their environment in a negative light, and have lower levels of job satisfaction. 

There is a reason that unions frequently focus on workplace stress as an element in their efforts to convince people to join a union or to make employers look bad in the public's eyes. Using stress as a jumping-off point, the unions can point to numerous studies that say the main causes of stress in the workplace are workload (46 percent), work-life balance issues (20 percent), people issues (28 percent), and lack of job security (6 percent). If stress is left unaddressed, it can become a disability, and it certainly accounts for over half of all missed workdays. 

People experiencing long-term stress are unhappy people. When they realize they are unable to continue feeling the way they do, they are likely to look for relief. It's one reason that unions present themselves as caring organizations that understand job stress and its impact on lives, and can help. It's important to discuss how leadership and mental health go hand-in-hand, along with workplace mental health as a whole.

Unionizing at Amazon

One of the most recent examples is Amazon. The unions are desperate to unionize at least one Amazon facility to gain a foothold, and one of the top issues is job stress. Employees at Amazon are working with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union to push for unionization and name their chief complaints as safety concerns, 12-hour shifts with lack of sufficient breaks, pressure to meet unreasonable production quotas, standing in long lines waiting for security checks and inadequate pay. 

Employees also mention that supervisors talk to employees poorly, as if they are robots, and managers create a hostile work environment. Calling the workplace "hostile" is the language of unionization

Employees also say they don't feel comfortable approaching managers and work too many hours. Amazon is a global company, and employees in other countries are making the same claims. 

Where to Find Relief?

Amazon is only used as one example. There are many companies where employees make these kinds of claims. Working conditions can cause long-term stress which leads to employee burnout, and at some point, people will seek relief. Sometimes, it's unions who become their public voice, but the reality is that unions will aggravate the stress. 

The employee will not only experience stress from personal and work issues but will also have to manage the stress of dealing with the crumbling of the employee-employer relationship when unions get involved. Employees start worrying about their jobs, the consequences of challenging managers, and going public with workplace conditions. 

If there wasn't a hostile environment before the union enters the picture, there will certainly be one afterward. The International Committee of the Fourth International describes working conditions with words like "mental health crisis" and "brutal exploitation" and "authoritarian industrial regime" and "miserable and even panic-inducing" and employees "in anxiety" for hours. Once again, it's the exaggerated language of unions.

As you strive to maintain high employee engagement levels and remain union-free, think about employees holistically. You don't want employees turning to unions to find relief. The alternative is to ensure your business includes mental health in the health and wellness program and that you have effective leadership – people who lead with empathy - throughout the organization. These are people who are effective communicators, engaging, and have full knowledge of the steps to take when employee stress is noted. 

Follow the Yellow-Brick Plan to Address Leadership and Mental Health

Your organization needs a specific plan that employees can follow. Large organizations may have an in-house employee counselor in Human Resources. However, more common approaches for medium to small-sized businesses are to:

  • Offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or consult with a professional EAP expert – contract with a confidential workplace service that assists employees dealing with a variety of stressors from work-life balance to addiction (common today) or implement the expert's suggestions
  • Develop and communicate a plan for employees – offer specific steps employees can follow to access resources, like an in-house counselor or community mental health agencies; include a plan for return to work should the employee need time off (removes the worry of potential job loss)
  • Educate employees on mental well-being - help remove the stigma of discussing mental health by regularly communicating supportive and informative information to employees
  • Train leaders at all organizational levels – frontline supervisors and managers are in a position to minimize employee stress through good management and to become the link to resources (door must be open to employees!); they can also reach out if they believe an employee is experiencing ongoing stress
  • Educate employees on unions – employers have the right to present their perspective on unions, so a well-prepared presentation via a webpage, videos or eLearning programs can help employees understand that unions are not the solution

"You Don't Care!"

Hopefully, your health insurance plan includes mental health services. Open communication about mental health is critical to staying union-free. Build a culture of trust, offer 24/7 access to information on mental well-being, conduct regular employee engagement surveys and train your supervisors and managers on how to use supportive language and the best way to approach struggling employees. These steps and more will likely mean you won't hear your employees publicly saying, "My employer doesn't care about me!" It is an open invitation to unions.

On a final note: The Communications Workers of America have an article posted online that gives employers insights into the union perspective on job stress, and a list of how safety and health committees in unionized workplaces address the issue. This is one step in a preventive strategy for staying union free. You can take the list, apply it to your organization and significantly lower the risk of a union being able to tell employees that you are the uncaring employer.

One thing is for certain: If you don't talk about mental health, the union will. Doing nothing is not an option. Don't be afraid to discuss how crucial leadership and mental health are in your workplace.

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About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is Director of IRI's Digital Workplace Solutions Group, and the founder of A Better Leader. Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.