As shorter days and colder temperatures collide with holiday-season strain, pandemic anxiety, and grief, many people are feeling overwhelmed--and more companies are recognizing the need to help employees cope with stress. 

Asking employees to compartmentalize is unrealistic, says Alyson Watson, founder and CEO of Modern Health, a mental health benefits company in San Francisco. "What goes on in the world and in our personal lives plays a huge role in how we perform and how we're able to show up at work." Mental health care will soon be considered the "fourth pillar" of employee benefits, after medical, dental, and vision insurance, Watson predicts. But even if your company can't afford to expand its benefits plan, you can take other steps to help your staff get through a difficult winter--and to incorporate mental health awareness into your culture. Here's how to start.

Approach sensitive subjects with caution.

While it's become nearly trendy in recent years for bosses to show vulnerability and share personal stories, sometimes talking openly about your trauma can cause more harm than good. Yes, it's important that employees know there's no shame in struggling with mental health, but be careful not to cross any lines when encouraging candid conversations, says Josh Knauer, co-founder and general partner at JumpScale, a wellness-oriented business consulting firm in New York City that works with impact investors and their portfolio companies. Some CEOs might feel comfortable talking about their own experiences with mental illness, addiction, or other issues, but they shouldn't assume that's the case for anyone else. Don't pressure employees to reveal more information than they're comfortable sharing at work, Knauer says, and have a mental health professional sit in on any potentially sensitive discussions.

When tackling emotional wellness in the workplace, regular communication is key, says organizational psychologist Cathleen Swody, a founding partner at leadership advisory firm Thrive Leadership in Glastonbury, Connecticut, where she is the director of assessment. Consider conducting a confidential survey to gauge your team's well-being, and encourage managers to check in with employees regularly. It can also help to use "nonclinical" language to remove the stigma of talking about personal problems. Instead of referring to "anxiety" or "mental health disorders," she suggests, talk about specific symptoms, like "trouble sleeping."

Don't assume you know what each individual is dealing with, Swody advises, and avoid asking questions that could sow anxiety. For example, a friendly question about holiday plans can backfire, especially this year. Some employees might prefer not to divulge that they're spending the holidays alone, while others plan to visit relatives but don't want to detail their virus precautions. Instead, ask people what they're looking forward to in the new year. 

Be a role model.

To encourage employees to take care of themselves, make a point of demonstrating healthy habits, like unplugging from email in the evening and on weekends, exercising, spending time outdoors, and practicing yoga or meditation, Swody says. "When leaders do that, it sends a compelling message to people: 'OK, this is part of the culture here; if this person can do it, then maybe so can I."

Stressed-out employees often feel guilty about taking time off or worry that they'll look bad, so consider requiring employees to use up accrued vacation time, even if they're just staying home. At the very least, Swody recommends instituting companywide breaks for a day or a few hours at a time. Giving employees time to recharge and spend time with loved ones also helps them be more productive when they return, Knauer notes.

Companies can build wellness into the workday, too. At JumpScale, Knauer says, meetings start with a "mindfulness minute" and a check-in. All the participants take a few deep breaths together and are invited to share how they're feeling. This simple activity "helps people literally calm down and release some of that stress before we start the meeting," he says, "but it also is a way for a company to set a tone that we care about your wellness and how you're doing."

Reexamine benefits and traditions.

Look at your benefits package to make sure it helps employees access mental health care in whatever way makes sense for your company, Knauer says. That could mean providing professional counseling as part of an insurance plan, offering flexible spending accounts, paying for virtual therapy sessions, or simply compiling a list of free resources. Every county in the U.S. provides some form of mental health services at low or no cost, he says, so make your employees aware of what's available. If you do introduce new benefits, communicate clearly about them and make them easy to navigate. Mountains of paperwork and confusion about reimbursement can create additional stress for an employee who's already struggling.

Be flexible with company-sponsored social events, Knauer says. Instead of trying to replicate team-building sessions or happy hours in a virtual setting, which can be awkward, get employees engaged with activities that work more naturally on Zoom. Colleagues could explore common interests with book clubs, teach one another skills, attend a chocolate tasting, or perform in a virtual talent show. Aim for inclusivity and safety, so that everyone feels comfortable participating, he says. (Avoid alcohol-focused or culturally specific events, for example, and don't require people to buy their own supplies for activities.) 

Follow through.

Unless you follow up with a specific plan, simply announcing that your company is going to prioritize mental health would be "disastrous," Swody says. She recommends starting with a compassionate message to show employees that they're valued and that the company's success is tied to their health. Then, come up with practical steps, even small ones, and keep employees informed as you move forward. "People don't do well when they don't have a sense of progress," she adds. That's why, in the depths of winter, it's especially important to acknowledge the prior year's challenges, celebrate successes, and stay focused on the future.

For many employees, 2020 has done damage that the arrival of spring and a vaccine won't immediately resolve. Taking steps now to care for their emotional well-being will help build resilience, but companies will need to reinforce those efforts throughout 2021 and beyond. "This is not just feel-good, esoteric stuff," Knauer says. "This is about building better culture. It's about building stronger teams."

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