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The past few months should turn our traditional thinking about safe work environments on its head – and I'm not talking about changes to a physical space like air purifiers and self-disinfecting elevator buttons. Right now, a safe job is all about individual protection, from freedom from the risk of injury to freedom from coercion, intimidation or harassment.
The shift I am thinking of is an unquestioned freedom to raise your hand and say some version of "I'm not okay" without the risk of being ignored or stigmatized.
Bob Woodward likes to say that from his journalistic experience, the four most powerful words in English are, “I need your help.” In my experience in small businesses – and now a company with a global presence – these are four of the most difficult words Words that people in companies can say aloud.
Related: Self-compassion is an essential tool for all entrepreneurs
Virus or no virus, work environments that suppress the freedom to let someone know when you are feeling anxious, stressed, confused, or burned out, reflect cultures and leadership skills that are unhealthy and counterproductive.
More than ever, when a global health crisis infiltrates every aspect of our lives – with no major change in the new status quo in sight – we are depleting our reserves of optimism and resilience. The toll begins to show.
In our recent survey of issues and attitudes directly related to the health crisis, small business owners in the US rated the health and wellbeing of their employees as a priority over cash flow issues and concerns about losing existing customers. Forty-one percent of small business owners expressed concern about their own mental health.
The crisis shows another fundamental difference between large and small companies in the year. Small businesses are more personal. There are no degrees of separation. The decisions are devastatingly difficult as there is a face and family associated with every decision about employment, compensation, and whether or not business can go on.
However, it is difficult for small business owners to put their hand in the air and say these four words: "I need your help." Of the owners we surveyed this summer, nearly 40 percent said they didn't even seek advice from an outside advisor on financial issues related to the virus.
I wonder. How many of these owners would not believe in hiring a personal fitness trainer? But seek help from a financial advisor or a mental wellness advisor? Do you acknowledge that we didn't find out everything? If these decisions still contain a misguided indication of weakness, how open is the rest of the organization to the notion of human vulnerability?
I certainly don't pretend to have all the answers, but here are some things I am working on.
Antennas at full extent
Most of the people I work with can handle set problems or situations very well, but that's not such a problem. The indeterminacy of its duration creates its own kind of stress. I have to ask how people are doing, listen and, moreover, be ready to take atypical measures for an atypical situation. For example: We are close to the end of our reporting period. I can feel the tiredness and encourage the sales managers to take an extra day off. It's not kindness or altruism. It is a direct investment in the health of our company and our employees.
Related: This entrepreneur's story shows the terrifying link between financial insecurity and mental health
Rest is a weapon
In US culture, more so than most other parts of the world, many people miss vacation days, and taking more than a week can feel overly indulgent. Now, working from home could add to this tendency. I hope not and we are working to ensure that it does not.
Formalize free time
At the beginning of the crisis, we increased the general wellness days available to our US employees from five to ten, and the local managers have a high level of discretion in dealing with individual situations. We also granted an extra day of wellness in support of World Mental Health Day.
Related: 6 Natural Remedies When You Are Stressed Out About Work or Life
The value of role models
Our values are based on what we call #human. I am fortunate to work for the people who lead the conversation – open, connected, proactive and not afraid to talk about their own weaknesses. This creates a workplace where people know they can do the same. Managers give this example.
Personally, I try to remind myself that some of the old standbys – comfort food, a Netflix binge – aren't my best long-term choices. Also, to find healthier alternatives, I remind myself not to have to run to marathons from where I am now. Incremental steps are better than assigning me another monumental task and stressing my lack of progress.
As I write this, I am aware that I am exhausted and that tomorrow is Friday. I'm taking it off and everything I do next week will be better because of it.
Related: 4 Mindset Shifts That Are Essential to a High Performing Business