After the tumult of the past few months, maybe we all need a mental health break, or at least to focus some time and energy on our wellbeing.
For many years, the topic of mental health has been little addressed, if not outright taboo, in the workplace, but that is changing, said Emily Wilcox, Chief Operating Officer of Practifi, a business management platform for financial advice firms.
“If you talk to any company, the team is the biggest asset,” she said. “The team is the fabric of your workplace. It’s important that mental health is something we can talk about and that we have resources available that can help our team.”
Failure to address mental health can be costly to companies, said Wilcox, leading to absenteeism, tardiness and declining productivity.
The pandemic has weighed heavily on employees’ mental health around the globe, but it has also highlighted the resilience of people, businesses and other institutions, said Wilcox.
Still, in the months to come, the trauma and other long-term psychological impacts of living so long with Covid-19, masks, quarantines, travel restrictions and lockdowns will become clear.
Practifi has teams in the U.S. and Australia, making it extra tricky to keep track of employee wellbeing in a work-from-home environment, said Wilcox.
“Even though we’re used to communicating electronically, the pandemic can have a massive impact on our mental health from isolation, the stress of going into lockdown, coming out, and then going back in,” she said. “It takes a big emotional and physical toll. Our team is diverse; the personality and character traits for an engineer may be very different from someone in sales. We had some people on our team who were really happy working from home and didn’t need to be in person, and then others who craved human interaction.”
During the weeks of lockdowns in the U.S. and Australia, Practifi’s human resources team conducted group-like sessions just to check in on the wellbeing of employees.
Workplaces are changing dramatically, not just because of the pandemic but because of cultural and technological changes as well. Practifi is preparing to move to a semi-remote workplace next year, said Wilcox.
Practifi will still have an office open, but it will be optional for team members to come in. Its teams will still meet quarterly for three days at a “Practifi Summit.”
“The point of that will be team building, wellbeing checks and getting everybody together to maintain relationships,” said Wilcox. “Our work is hard, but if you like and respect the team you work for, then things become a lot easier to handle and digest. We understand that expectations are changing around working from home and the flexibility it provides.”
Addressing The Need
Companies like Practifi can’t play therapist, and can’t provide specific help, said Wilcox. Instead, the goal is to be conscious and accommodative of mental health and to offer tools and resources to empower employees.
To that end, Wilcox has put together a mental health working group at Practifi to design tools and resources related to mental health, including assistance programs and access to information.
“The important thing is that we’re being proactive in talking about it. I was very conscious in making sure we had people from all parts of the company because this isn’t something that can appear manipulated or mandated in any way,” she said. “You have to create the right environment, and people will come when they feel comfortable.”
That environment becomes part of company culture, said Wilcox, leading to happier, more trustworthy and more respectful workplaces.
The company conducts monthly check-ins with employees to allow them to open up—the check-in purposefully stays out of the day-to-day functions of the staff member and focuses on their wellbeing more broadly, said Wilcox.
“It opens conversations from only discussing individual clients and individual things happening and really looks ahead at where people want to go and where they are struggling more broadly,” she said. “We see this as a way to build honest and transparent relationships with our people, which is really critical.”
Practifi offers staff a benefit called “Practifi days,” a few personal days off a year where people can do anything they like, no questions asked.
For all intents and purposes, it’s a “mental health day,” said Wilcox.
“Sometimes you need to take a break,” she said. “Just give yourself a second to take a breath and take stock of how you’re doing. A lot of people are hesitant to do that because they’re eager to please or they don’t want to project the appearance of suffering, but when they do it, they’re happy with what that break does for them.”
Wilcox’s mental health working group is exploring potentially offering employees access to professional help and more formal tools to address any mental health situation they are experiencing, in the new year.
Until recently, a company addressing employee mental health in such a direct manner was nearly unheard of, but it’s becoming more in-demand.
“It’s finally a conversation that everyone is having,” said Wilcox. “I think it’s been difficult because mental health impacts everyone in different ways, and symptoms manifest in so many different ways. It’s important that we’re building awareness and creating a safe space for people to talk, where it’s okay to be discussing these issues amongst the team. This is part of creating an inclusive workplace culture.”
It’s also part of considering wellness more broadly within the workplace, said Wilcox, who named several pillars of wellness: physical, emotional, mental and financial.
“It’s interesting, our clients are in the wealth management and financial planning industries, so we are also looking at ways we can assist our employees by providing access and resources so they can understand more about financial health and what it means,” said Wilcox. “Just like other types of wellness, it’s not the same thing to everybody. Education is key in finding the strategies that are right for each person.”
“The biggest thing you can do is to tap into your people. You need to talk to your team and get a pulse for how they’re doing, and how they’re feeling, and what is important to them.”