Entrepreneurs are well aware that, of all the elements their companies are made up of, the hardest to replicate are their employees. To maintain this differentiating factor, it would make sense that leaders would do everything possible to ensure their teammates felt supported physically, mentally and emotionally.
But that’s often not what happens.
The disparity between employees’ value and how they’re sometimes treated by their leaders was made apparent earlier this month, when Olark founder and CEO Ben Congleton’s response to an employee’s mental health days went viral.
Congleton applauded developer Madalyn Parker’s openness with her team about her need to take a break to focus on her mental health, saying he couldn’t believe mental health days weren’t “standard practice at all organizations.” This simple interaction sparked a viral conversation about mental health and strength, and it highlighted a big opportunity for leaders to improve their team’s performance — and their own.
Mental health and mental strength aren’t mutually exclusive
In some professional circles, mental health and mental strength are referred to as completely separate entities — if you have to focus on your mental health, you must not be very strong; if you’re mentally strong, you don’t need to do anything to boost the mental health you already have.
In fact, they’re connected. Maintaining mental strength requires a commitment to mental health, and leaders who overlook the need to feed mental health miss out on having the strongest team possible.
Congleton’s response reaffirmed many things I’ve learned over the years, including five elements that are critical to building any professional’s mental strength:
1. Encourage community within your company.
Nobody likes eating alone in the cafeteria. The simple act of positioning someone to feel like part of a group can counteract the loneliness that can terrorize a person’s mind and override the ability to think clearly. One study even found that lonely people are less susceptible to rewards than others, meaning they’re also less likely to be engaged with your projects or your work.
Establish a group to support people who want to quit smoking, or create a mentorship program. Building communities within your organization ensures that people are caring for and supporting one another, treating each individual like a person and not a number.
2. Set realistic expectations for performance, both good and bad.
Parker’s self-awareness that she needed a break to perform was essential to pointing her in the right direction for her own health. But it provided her boss with a reminder as to how important these breaks are for long-term success. Losing employees, incurring training costs and absorbing the cost of filling roles can impact a company’s long-term prognosis.
Some leaders freeze at the thought of championing downtime, thinking it will encourage lazy people to be lazier. By setting clear expectations about the key performance indicators that team members need to target, leaders have built-in accountability and can maintain the flexibility to allow results-producing employees to take the breaks that keep them committed.
3. Invest in hiring processes that benefit candidates as much as they benefit you.
I personally interview every single employee hired at ONTRAPORT. Some people may think a healthier approach is the opposite: Leaders should trust their employees to make those decisions. I do trust my employees — I trust them to refer the right people. I then meet with candidates to confirm that the people I’m surrounded by not only like what they do and perform well, but are also in a situation to be successful.
By sharing my vision of where the company is headed, I’m able to paint a picture of how each person will play a part in achieving that. Seeing people light up — or lose interest — tells me whether they’ll be happy in our environment over the long haul, and ignoring that would be doing a disservice to both my company and these candidates.
4. Remind yourself of what’s beyond the office doors.
As an entrepreneur, it’s easy to believe that everyone else should be as obsessed with the company as you are. Many of these people, however, aren’t owners and don’t have the same stake in the game. Providing them with opportunities to take ownership of projects or processes is important, but their lives don’t begin and end with your office.
When you see an opening to support employees outside the office, do it. Does your engineer’s daughter have a recital? Has it been a year since your designer took a vacation? Could you offer additional support to your developer, who’s caring for an elderly parent? All of these scenarios represent opportunities to honor every aspect of your employees’ lives.
5. Take the time to build physical strength while building mental strength.
As anyone who has taken a long walk in nature can attest, taking care of one’s body is often the same thing as taking care of one’s mind. The first thing to drop off the radar when we’re feeling less than our best mentally is the need to work out or eat healthy, so leaders have to proactively build healthy structures for their teams.
I’ve offered what I call Morning Meditations, built-in times to disengage from the rapid pace of everything else and reconnect with being present in the moment. I’ve known other entrepreneurs who have supplied healthy snacks at the office, organized group walks or assembled teams for kickball or softball leagues.
Mental health and mental strength aren’t built overnight — as they say, anything worth having takes work. That’s why it’s vital that leaders support their employees by creating communities, setting realistic expectations, establishing two-way hiring processes and recognizing outside influences. Strengthening the people who are important to you ensures that your company will be equally strong, making mental health a win-win for entrepreneurs who acknowledge it.