Employers are embracing the idea of authenticity and creating an environment where employees can “bring their whole self to work.” The underlying goal is to promote inclusion in the workplace, but the invitation can create confusion and double standards.
Not all employees feel welcome to be open and authentic at work. While there is an implication that employees can admit if they have a bad day, those who face real mental health challenges or discrimination at work might be reluctant to speak up.
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Also, employers enforce selective standards for what it means to be professional, especially in a remote environment. For example, leaders may say there is no dress code but single out an employee for wearing a sweatshirt on a virtual meeting due to others frequently wearing T-shirts.
There are also different standards and expectations within a multi-generational workplace. For instance, Gen Z employees and Millennials typically use technology differently and have contrasting communication habits than Baby Boomers or Gen Xers.
A mental health crisis
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Director Joshua Gordon wrote about the lingering effects of COVID-19 on mental health, stressing that the long-term impact will outlive the pandemic itself.
Citing a CDC report that surveyed adults, Gordon said the number of people who self-reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, started or increased substance abuse, reported stress-related symptoms, and had severe thoughts of suicide nearly doubled post-pandemic.
The breakdown, according to the report, is as follows:
- 31% of respondents reported symptoms of anxiety or depression
- 13% reported having started or increased substance use
- 26% reported stress-related symptoms
- 11% reported having severe thoughts of suicide in the past 30 days
People have started to process and work through various aspects of mental trauma influenced – if not caused by – the pandemic.
“It is crucial that we work together to apply evidence-based strategies to support the mental health needs of everyone and to make these strategies broadly available, especially in vulnerable communities,” Gordon said.
The key is to develop policies beyond the scope of how we previously viewed employee mental health and inclusion in the workplace. Employees must feel supported and comfortable being open and honest about what matters to them.
Here are five strategies that can help you create a more inclusive workplace where employees can bring their whole selves to work without judgment.
1. Educate leadership on how to recognize bias
Training employees to recognize their own unconscious bias is the first step toward helping them realize bias in others. While unconscious bias training will not solve the problem of inequality or lack of inclusion, it does help create a foundation to do so.
Organizational consulting company Korn Ferry describes unconscious bias training as a way to address how our minds are conditioned to act when we encounter people we perceive as different from us. Often, these perceived differences trigger learned thought patterns that can influence us to reject or misinterpret others’ words or actions. This can contribute to a lack of diversity and inclusion regarding your organization’s hiring, training, or advancement.
As you introduce unconscious bias training, make sure to stretch beyond the scope of self-awareness to a more comprehensive view that implements inclusion in the workplace at a behavioral and structural level. Find a training partner or curriculum to help your team recognize and mitigate bias in their thoughts and actions. Find ways to remove bias from your company’s structure, such as hiring practices or gathering team input.
Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory’s Human Resources Diversity and Inclusion Office released a sample inclusion and unconscious bias evaluation exercise where an employee could set inclusion and diversity goals, then list how they achieved that goal in a concrete way. Leaders can discuss these goals with employees during performance reviews.
A sample goal for recruiting and hiring was to serve as a role model to others, to behave in a way that actively supported the workplace’s principles, and promoted diversity and inclusion in the workplace. The employee met the goal by recognizing their role as a hiring manager and discussing with their selection committee potential areas for unconscious bias in the recruitment and hiring process, as well as debriefing after meetings to ensure transparency, fairness, and objectivity.
2. Set clear expectations
Rather than telling prospective employees to “bring their whole selves to work” – which is vague – be clear about what you expect of them in the workplace.
Regarding the hybrid work model, have a clear dress code policy for what is acceptable in the office and on virtual meetings. For example, the dress code for client meetings may include wearing business-casual tops, while the expectation for internal meetings may be more relaxed.
Your policies may need to extend to professional behavior during virtual meetings. For instance, if your company meetings take place during lunchtime for some employees, let them know it’s alright to eat during those meetings as long as they mute themselves.
The shift to more remote work means many of us are invited into our colleagues’ living rooms and meet their spouses, children, and pets, possibly for the first time. Employees should feel comfortable expressing themselves and their surroundings in authentic but professional ways. This can be more challenging for Gen Z and Millennial employees, in particular, who may not have a dedicated office space at home. A company-branded virtual background is an excellent alternative to showing an unmade bed and a pile of laundry on a client-facing meeting.
3. Actions speak louder than words
Promoting inclusion in the workplace means acknowledging many employees are struggling with mental health challenges. One in five Americans has a diagnosable mental illness, and the Center for Prevention and Health reports that mental illness and substance abuse issues cost employers between $79 billion and $105 billion annually.
Larger companies are putting money behind their words by increasing investments in employee well-being programs. According to the Society for Human Resources Management, the total budget for these wellness programs averages $6 million – an increase from the reported $4.9 million average pre-pandemic.
Well-being best practices may include mindfulness and meditation classes, yoga classes, free or low-cost counseling services, or even additional time off. It’s crucial to equip your leaders to notice signs of mental burnout before employees become quiet quitters.
Some common signs listed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) include:
- Excessive worrying or fear
- Feeling excessively sad or low
- Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
- Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
- Avoiding social activities and meetings
- Difficulties understanding or relating to others
- Changes in eating habits, such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
- Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes, such as frequent headaches or stomach pain
- Inability to carry out daily activities or handle everyday problems and stress
Employees should be aware of the benefits available to them through their insurance plans and employee assistance programs. Also, leadership teams must feel comfortable discussing mental health and burnout with employees.
“What the pandemic has required leaders now to acknowledge is that employee well-being is not a singular concern that can be crafted in a wellness plan,” said Sarah Sims, Director of Talent & Employee Experience at the Aspen Institute, on the Workplace Innovator Podcast. “The answer lies in employee engagement. This requires managers to lead with compassion and be more of a coach instead of a boss.”
4. Support work-life balance
Employees thrive when they can adjust their work needs to fit into their personal lives. Such as having the freedom to work where and how they work best when possible with technology that makes it easy.
In the post-pandemic world, 73% of employees from a global survey want flexible remote work options to stay. Therefore, it’s essential to implement the right technology to support employees in maintaining their productivity in the hybrid workplace. The more employees are on the go and transitioning between workplaces; the more your hardware and software need to be optimized for mobile use. The goal is to have clean graphical user interfaces and ease of connectivity between devices.
When creating your policies, craft guidelines that promote a work-life balance. Rather than praising overtime and viewing time as a sign of loyalty or productivity, look for ways to encourage productivity and efficiency. Leaders should support employees in enjoying their life outside of work as well. After all, they work hard to provide for themselves and their families, and they deserve it.
Encourage vacation time, or create flexible scheduling, so employees can adjust their schedules to fit their life needs. Set goals focused on measurable outcomes rather than how many projects each employee takes on.
5. Maintain an open dialogue
Encourage employees to voice concerns by hosting executive office hours where anyone can book time with your leadership team. Additionally, offer smaller break-out sessions during larger company meetings and send out regular surveys. Employees should also know how to file a formal complaint without fear of retribution when they experience or witness unacceptable behavior, such as discrimination or sexual harassment.
Not everyone will be forthcoming with concerns.
That’s why managers need to have regular one-on-one discussions with employees and ask the right questions, said Michelle Dickinson, a well-being strategist and TEDx speaker, and Rachel Druckenmiller, CEO of UNMUTED, during an employee wellness roundtable.
While conducting a survey, Druckenmiller found that the most meaningful thing leaders can do to make employees feel cared for is to engage them in frequent conversations.
That includes asking questions like:
- How have you adapted over the past two years, personally or professionally?
- How are you really doing right now?
- What tools do you have to cope?
- How can I best support you right now?
Checking in on employees is very different from checking up on them, which feels like micromanaging and leads to trust issues. Above all, employees want to be seen and heard, which requires more effort in remote and hybrid environments. When employees feel no one notices them or cares, they are more likely to act out or withdraw.
Promoting wellbeing and inclusion requires a long-term commitment
Promoting inclusion in the workplace and employee well-being requires much more than a single initiative or a one-time discussion. It starts with the executive team taking proactive steps to cultivate a company culture that encourages every employee to work the way they work best and be open and honest about their concerns.
Companies must train managers and employees to recognize issues like unconscious bias and mental health challenges while being prepared to take action. Leaders also must take an active interest in employees’ lives outside work. After all, happy employees are productive employees.