Bring Your Whole Self To Work
Dr. Uma Kedharnath
Associate Professor of Management at the University of Wisconsin - Whitewater
A recent study has shown that mental health has worsened for thirty-four percent of American workers. Dr. Uma Kedharnath talks about how workplaces are addressing the mental health concerns of their workers. Dr. Kedharnath received her doctorate in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from Colorado State University and is currently an Associate Professor of Management at the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater. Taking the steps to address mental health is not only good for the employee; it’s good for the business and good for the culture, too. Dr. Kedharnath can be reached at [email protected]. Help for your mental health is available. Nationally, you can start your search at https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/find-help.
[Jaunty Guitar Music]
Mike: Welcome everyone. This is Avoiding The Addiction Affliction, a series brought to you by Westwords Consulting. I'm your host, Mike McGowan.
Mike: A recent study released by the World Health Organization has shown that mental health has worsened for 34% of American workers, 34%. We thought we'd talk about stress in the workplace and other related issues today with our guest, Dr.
Mike: Uma Kedharnath. Dr. Kedharnath received her doctorate in industrial and organizational psychology from Colorado State University and is currently an associate professor of management at the University of Wisconsin Whitewater. Now, you know, whenever we have these conversations and I have somebody on from an organization, the thoughts they expressed are theirs and don't necessarily represent the organization they work for.
Mike: Welcome Uma. Thanks for joining me.
Uma: Thanks for inviting me today, Mike, and to all of our listeners. Hello.
Mike: You know, I guess when I read the study and saw the study, I wasn't surprised because these concerns have risen all across the board, but do you have a theory why you think mental health concerns would rise so dramatically among workers?
Uma: Yeah, absolutely. There are lots of reasons, and if we just think, we just take a snapshot of the last three years alone, things that have happened onsite and things that have happened at home, there have been lots of transitions. So the kind of overarching theme of everything that I read and see and hear from people is this idea of struggling to achieve some kind of balance, right?
Uma: Work-life balance, work-family balance. And the interesting thing is you have so many different factors. You have employees, you have organizations who have been dealing with this in different ways. Some organizations have been very open to this idea of, okay, things have changed. Let's talk about flexibility.
Uma: And then other organizations have tried the flexibility approach and now they're talking about. What if we bring people back to work? What if people aren't actually working anymore? And there's so much going on with that. So my general thoughts about why mental health concerns have risen. Part of it is COVID and the aftermath.
Uma: Some of it is also when we break apart our workforce and we look at who is affected the most by mental health concerns in the last couple of years. We've had specific industries. We've had folks in nursing and teaching and healthcare and we've also had younger adults today who are entering the workforce.
Uma: And for them, maybe it's a mix of, you know, they're entering what their career is, they're trying to get housing. There's a lot going on. So, to answer your question. I think striving to achieve balance is the biggest thing that I see. So long answer.
Mike: No, that's a great answer. And what you also are alluding to is things changed and we don't always handle change that well.
Uma: And to handle change. There's a lot to do with our mental resources. And so when you read, like I've been looking at a lot of the research coming out in just the last couple of years, and a lot of us are dealing with drained mental resources and emotional resources to deal with changes. And we're also dealing with, some of us have been dealing with isolation.
Mike: Amazing. Well, alright, so then that begs the question what workers can do to take care of themselves.
Uma: Right. Let's get into that. I think from everything I have to offer today, I think there are basically four pieces and there is a paradox of giving people who are already too stressed and busy. More homework, but there's, there's some merit to facilities, right?
Uma: So the first piece I always start with is, acknowledge. Like if you are stressed or anxious or overwhelmed or angry, the first thing is acknowledge it and do not blame yourself. Because a lot of us, we tend to say, why am I feeling these things? And we dive right back into our days. So the very first piece is even saying, okay, something's not quite right.
Uma: Right. That leads me to my second point. This is some of the homework piece. This is the knowing your rights as an employee. So there are so many people in the general population that unless they have been exposed to it for some reason, they don't even know that something might be a right.
Uma: For example, let's say there's someone in the workplace, they've been struggling for the last year with major depression, and they're not even sure if they can talk to their boss about it or say something to HR. It actually does help in this situation for this person to read up a little bit on what can they do because in most cases, organizations can offer reasonable accommodation if you at least start the conversation.
Uma: So it, they can do things like altered work schedules, breaks, quiet spaces, telecommuting options, some days of the week. So even if it's not a severe or permanent condition, people should know to ask. And that leads me to my next point is people understanding their employee benefits. So knowing your rights is one thing, knowing your employee benefits is another.
Uma: And it's even for me, it's something I still work on today. And I think most people who are so stressed and overwhelmed and angry. I think the last place they think to run to for comfort is their employee benefits manual. But the reason I bring it up is they may not even know that their company might pay for, let's say, three or six free sessions with a counselor, for example.
Uma: So again, it may be counseling related, it may be financial benefits, maybe there's financial counseling or something there. It depends on what the person's looking for. But understanding employee benefits, you at least know that something's there. Because a lot of our statistics, when you look at research about what people actually use, so many of our benefits are underutilized.
Uma: There's an organization that I was listening to. They showed up because I was listening to our US Department of Labor. They have a brand new mental health initiative cuz they recognize the same thing you're talking about Mike. They recognize the mental health issues in the workplace and, and how to have a conversation around it.
Uma: There was an organization I was listening to and what was really cool about them is they had noticed that over the last three decades, they had been providing this benefit. It's basically an employee assistance program, right? So it's proactive mental health resources. So employees, if they need something, they can seek out.
Uma: Well, for three decades this company noticed no, like barely anybody's using this.
Uma: And they were wondering if we're offering it, why is nobody using it? And that happens so often. So what they did is they started a campaign and they said, "Hey, this is here. Please call. Please use this!" And within the first month that they started their campaign, what they noticed is over time the usage of their benefits for mental health went up like five times or something really in like significant impact.
Uma: So some of what I'm talking about here is just awareness, so it can come from the company, but as an employee, you don't have to wait for them to tell you these things. You can start seeking the information. So my last piece of information here is about just be ready to start a conversation. And it can be with a boss, and it doesn't have to be spilling all the personal stuff, but it can at least be a conversation of, "I've been struggling, what can I do?"
Uma: And sometimes this leads to really helpful conversations. Like, for example, there are people who don't know that FMLA leave is also for mental health. It depends on the case obviously, but a lot of people think of FMLA as childbirth and adoption and caring for a sick parent and going in for surgery.
Uma: They don't necessarily think about it for all the mental health. Something newly diagnosed, something they've never even asked about before. So, starting the conversation is my last piece of advice here, because silently suffering, it ultimately hurts the person who's suffering and they get to be very alone.
Uma: So what happens there is the supervisors, peers, friends, they don't even get to really know that something's going on. So a lot of my advice here is about. It's another step. It's a big step, but being ready to start a conversation about it can lead to so many good things.
Mike: You know, I'll come back to that one, the fourth one in a minute, but number two and three are linked, I think, right?
Mike: I think the second one you said, know your rights. I think a lot of people are afraid.
Mike: I think they're afraid to bring it up and they're afraid of the third. Which is okay if I bring it up, what happens to me and what happens in that conversation to my boss or supervisor, how to have that.
Uma: And for many reasons, people are quiet about bad things that are going on either within themselves or someone that's doing something bad to them. And, so the shame here is for one, there is a stigma, right? Like we've been. The reason I'm really happy that your podcast exists and the reason that so many of us are starting to slowly talk about mental health, that's a positive trend.
Uma: And for the fear, I would say in some cases I understand the fear of retaliation, right? Is that what you're referring to, Mike?
Mike: I think that's what most people I talk to are afraid of.
Uma: Yeah. I mean, people are afraid to admit all kinds of things to their bosses and, and even to HR, because. What if it's used against them?
Uma: So in, in that kind of situation, I would say if you've tried everything you can do. So for the, the scary parts, right? People understanding their rights and thinking about what happens if I exercise it or if I need to understand my benefits, what happens if I take it?
Uma: So the understanding, the benefits piece.
Uma: Like, I never really thought that people would be afraid to exercise their benefits like a long time ago. I never even thought about it. But then the more I see and read, the more there is even backlash for, for example. Have you, you've heard of unlimited PTO?
Uma: And how popular it's become. Right?
Uma: Let's talk about that for just a second. What have you heard about unlimited PTO? Like how has it been presented to you?
Mike: To me?
Mike: Lazy. Don't wanna work. I mean, I hear that a lot, that that's what management perceives it as.
Uma: Oh, so how management perceives it. Okay, great. So let's start with that unlimited PTO I think on the surface level has been really appealing to any applicant, right? The idea, the phrase unlimited PTO, that maybe I can go lay on a beach for weeks. Like that sounds appealing, but the reason I wanted to talk about just that benefit as an example is it's more complicated. So you're right, Mike, in terms of understanding and using your benefits there, there are complexities.
Uma: So going back to this unlimited PTO for example. If you actually look at the research on how it's used and how it's been going, it actually has been functioning depending on the organization. A lot of times it has been better for a marketing tool to get people in the door with this idea of, oh, I can take as much time off as I need.
Uma: The caveats though, have to do with asking for time off and having it granted to you.
Uma: So that's the crazy thing is a lot of people. When it's just given to them and you use it or lose it, people take it. They take that lead, they're more likely to use it. And the research has shown that in a lot of organizations, people actually use less leave because of the culture and the expectations.
Uma: So what you're hitting on Mike, like how can people do numbers two and three when they're possibly in a culture or an environment that doesn't encourage it? They say they do, but maybe they don't.
Mike: Well, and I think that goes to the next question, which is, what can healthy organizations do?
Mike: You know, you mentioned it in your comment for number three, that the business that, where nobody was using the employee assistance program. Well, I can see where they're afraid to, and then all of a sudden they publicize it like, no, we want you to, and it's used. So, you know, the culture has a great deal to do with this.
Uma: Yes. And a lot of people don't know, for example, for employee assistance programs, they may not know that it's confidential. They may not understand that they get to call and there is a layer of protection between them and the organization knowing who's even using it. And this is what I was saying earlier, good companies should give this information a little more readily. Don't get me wrong, a lot of organizations have realized, "Oh, people aren't using our benefits. Why are we paying for them?" And so they've started teaching employees, no, this is how you use it. But if you are in an organization where you're still not totally clear what you have, you should at least ask what it is before you decide, I can or cannot use this, or I should not use this.
Uma: At least asking. What you have can be helpful,
Mike: You know, since you, you know, your, your degree, your doctorate, and all of your education. You know, I want, I got, I have a master's in management and I got it after I was already working and not once in any of my classes when I got it, did they address how to talk to an employee about this stuff?
Mike: And I think from a management perspective, these are intimidating conversations. It's easier to ignore and deny than it is to bring it up.
Uma: Yeah. There is a, there is a lot of hush hush. Honestly, one of the things that I see the most complaints about is manager training and what are they actually trained to do and what are they rewarded for using. So managers are told, yeah, ask about your employee's mental health, but then they're punished for asking for it. Well, they're also in this culture that's not encouraging [laugh] them to do the right things. It's interesting, I think healthy companies, these are some big things that they're supposed to be doing, but.
Uma: So since organizations, right a company's main goal is not necessarily to provide counseling for their employees when mental health is starting to decline, but the things that they can control, that we have decades of research and consultants and, and people to help with it are the things that the organization creates.
Uma: So, for example, if they have inefficient processes that are causing a lot of stress to employees or if they have to redesign a workload. Like one of the things that I've read that contributes to the latest mental health decline is people being overworked in certain organizations.
Uma: Right. Well, we do have tools to at least look at what is someone's job made of and how can we maybe reallocate certain things? They can also control, like having generous parental leave in certain cases or telecommuting policies. A lot of the things that healthy companies can do right now have to do with flexibility, and they also have to do with things like culture.
Uma: So addressing a toxic culture, there's nothing easy about it. It's not a. It's not a one day fix, right? These are large conversations about who are we, what are our practices, what do we say versus what do we do? So the to-do list for employees in some ways is a little bit more straightforward as far as figure out your rights, see what you can do from there.
Uma: The to-do list for organizations like look at your culture. That is a group level effort that that's big change that we're talking about. Can't, it's not that it can't be done, it's just that's a big part of the equation today.
Mike: I was hired a few years ago to go to a really, really big company and do some management training.
Mike: And the gentleman told me that they spent about $5 million a year in this company letting go of managers. Not because they were bright, not because they weren't bright or knew their job, but because they could not get along with the people that they supervised or their colleagues. They were brilliant.
Mike: They knew how to do their job, but these interpersonal skills, how do we acquire those? At the same time, were expecting supervisors, managers, bosses, to do their job job.
Uma: That's a great question and honestly, part of it is screening. Part of it is screening for people who might, if they're not able to currently do it, but they're willing to work on those things.
Uma: That's something I don't know if we even really look for all the time when we promote somebody to manager, right? I mean, we, we look at their job performance, we see what can they do, but we don't necessarily stop to train some of the interpersonal. And then, yeah, I I think part of it is screening and part of it is training.
Uma: We have so many good leadership development programs out there.
Mike: Yeah, we do.
Uma: Behavioral. Let's try this role play. Let's do this action learning. Let's try these things out. See where you fail and succeed. We have a lot of things to help with the interpersonal skills.
Mike: You know, you're right that when the minute you said that, I'm like, you're right. Every college offers them. I get, I'm inundated with emails for workshops on them.
Mike: But yet, when you hear people talk, the number one, you know, our national pastime used to be baseball, and now I don't know if it's football or whatever, but I think our national pastime is really complaining about your job.
Mike: The workload is part of it, but it's, it's my relationship with my supervisor.
Mike: That's the big thing. I work a lot in schools Uma, and I hear teachers say, without jeopardizing my work, that it's not the kids, it's the administrative garbage they have to put up with that's overwhelming and stressful.
Mike: And you must hear it too. You're nodding, so you must hear it.
Uma: Oh yeah. I, I hear it all the time.
Uma: And as far as what you're saying about what do people do when we know there are tools out there, like how do we even go about using them? A lot of organizations find that if they don't actively reward for it. If it's just lip service, they say this is important, but then it's not actually acknowledged, let alone rewarded anywhere, then there really is no true motivation to prioritize that.
Uma: So if I'm a manager who's been going along for 10 years and I've never had to really deal with how to have certain tough conversations with my employees, for example. But if my organization allows me to do that. When will I actually prioritize working on some something so tough? Right? It's difficult, like we're always working on it.
Mike: Well, so how would a, let's say, you know, sometimes I hear things like, leave your personal problems at the door.
Mike: Like, like that it's really easy to do. Right. And how would a manager go about initiating a conversation with an employee who they're concerned about?
Uma: This is the mixed message thing, cuz there's.
Uma: If you look at, if you like, I, I hang out on the SHRM website all the time because it's our, our national HR organization. There are lots of people on there who say things like, bring your whole self to work as opposed to this "leave your", so when you're hearing this, so I'm supposed to be me. I'm supposed to actually be authentically me, which means I may have to talk about things that are occasionally uncomfortable or difficult. Right. And, and so when your, your question Mike was what can a manager do to start a conversation? Is that right?
Mike: Yes. As opposed to waiting till the performance review and then downgrading an employee because it's affecting their job and beating around the bush and never getting to the, you know, like denying, ignoring the problem.
Uma: Absolutely. The, the main thing that you said that caught my attention was waiting till the performance evaluation. And there are managers who do it because it is uncomfortable to approach them day in and day out and, and approach the employee and say, "Hey, can we talk about this thing that you just did? Can we, can we look at it?"
Uma: And honestly, it. It is a thing that I work on with my students in the classroom all the time is just having these tough conversations. And beyond the classroom. Like this is something everybody can work on, even if it's not initiated by the organization. So there are books, there are resources, and the manager, honestly, if, if the books and resources are still not enough, they, I've known people, I've known managers who have gone to a coach, they've gone to their HR department and they've said, I need help in this area. So it's kind of like what we were saying for employees is saying, Hey, look, I actually need help on this. So if your organization isn't initiating that right now, it is a really good call for managers to be initiating.
Uma: I don't know, did that answer your question?
Mike: Yeah. And it, you know, the, the minute you said the phrase, "can we talk about this?" That's no different than I would say to my own kids or my friends or, right. It it, you don't have to have the solution to notice the problem.
Uma: Most of our brains don't do much with feedback about something that happened six months ago.
Uma: Right. It, it's, unless it was really serious, our brains don't... A lot of us react a little bit differently if it's real time feedback. So if it's something that happened a week ago, it's fresh in my memory and I can engage with it, and my supervisor's talking to me about it now. It actually is, it allows me the opportunity as maybe an employee who's struggling with something to even have an ongoing conversation.
Uma: So there is this implication that it's an ongoing conversation and not once a quarter, once a year.
Mike: I, I would think that if you're willing to do that as a boss or as a company to stand by an employee who's going through stuff. As they go through it, you now have somebody working with you and for you who's willing to walk through a wall for you because you're supporting them.
Uma: And it doesn't even have to be a personal crisis that they're walking with me for. Right. It can even be. I'm struggling with this other stuff. I don't wanna talk about that, but I'm at least letting my manager know I'm struggling. I can't really talk about it, but I would like some help with X.
Mike: Yeah. I, I love that line. We, so there is a boundary. We don't have to divulge everything that we're going through. I'm dealing with the personal issues enough. Right. What do we do if some of our problems have to do with that dope that I work next to?
Uma: [laugh] That is a great question. Similarly, you know, it's funny cuz my students and I talk about this all the time. Like, what do you do in the workplace? Right? How do you actually handle the interpersonal stuff? Because there's so much of it and you don't just deal with it in HR jobs, right.
Uma: My, my students, a lot of them are going to HR jobs and they ask about this stuff in classrooms. Like how do you talk to somebody about their behaviors or their attitude, right? There are books out there like I've, I've, for example, one of the ones I read a few years ago was called Crucial Conversations.
Uma: It breaks down what the mental places that you're coming from, the common goal and ultimately just being able to communicate. "Can we talk about this thing?" " I just wanna understand why it goes like this." "Can we maybe revisit this next week?" I mean, it's honestly a lot of us, the double-edged sword when we are tired and overloaded and stressed and we feel like we're drowning.
Uma: It is so much work to initiate those conversations, isn't it?
Uma: It's so, it's exhausting. It's so much work to do it well. And it's one of those things that when I think about my personal times where I have had to say, say something for myself, right? I think some of it is just giving yourself space.
Uma: So for the manager who's struggling to, how do I talk with my employee about this thing that they're doing or, or this pattern I'm noticing, how do I approach it? Or for the employee with the dope in the, the next cubicle, how do they handle? I think sometimes it's even just having a little space to prepare for it and just saying, "Yeah, I acknowledge that this is, this is bothering me."
Uma: This is not healthy. This is not okay. How do I prepare for this? And then eventually I think we'll get around to it.
Mike: You know, I, I think you just hit on a great word, prepare, because if, if I'm working next to somebody or whatever, it's not like I gotta do it yesterday. They're not going anywhere.
Mike: And the same problem's gonna be there two months from now.
Mike: So I have, I have time to prepare. I just can't put it off. Right. I, I need to prepare.
Uma: There are so many things on my to-do list. I always have 10 more things to add to it, but one of the things about preparing is it at least allows you to know, I, I've acknowledged this. I get what the issue is. Is it a battle I need to fight?
Uma: Is it something that can wait? And yeah, I, I agree with you. The preparation, again, exhausting, but better in the long run I feel like.
Mike: Yeah. Well, alright, so as you project forward. As the workplace has changed over the last three years and clearly is going to continue to evolve. How do you see the relationships between workers and management evolving moving forward?
Uma: Oh, definitely lots of back and forth. I mean, I think one of the things that's always interesting to watch and kind of survey is. The things that companies try out and their kind of experiments, and sometimes they fail spectacularly, but they've at least learned, "Oh, this is why we can't just run this program this way, or we can't just do this policy the same way."
Uma: It is actually really insightful to learn from those mistakes. Right, and, and not repeat the same thing again. But moving forward. I mean, we we're in for some interesting stuff. We have worker shortages, we have automation. We have a global workforce. We have an aging workforce. We have, we're now trying to involve our younger people into the workforce at an earlier state because of shortages.
Uma: We have so much change coming and I truly believe the only way to figure out how to move forward is the dialogue. And it has to be from both parties. I can pull up case study after case study where one party's not quite taking it seriously or not really listening.
Uma: And it can be either person, it can be the manager or the employee. It can be the VP, it can be anybody. But when they're not really, really, in that conversation, I think we'll probably continue to see initiatives that don't work, or we'll continue to see people saying, I'm not enjoying work anymore, and, and finding ways to withdraw.
Uma: I mean, one of the interesting things that I've been noticing is there are employees that are saying I work more, there are also lots of employees who are actually working less.
Uma: And it's a way for them to cope. It's a way for them to say, "I've given so much and I'm just going to dial it back." So people are gonna deal with the next few decades in their own ways, but it really seems like the communication is where it's at.
Mike: You know, I, I was gonna let that be your "get out of this podcast" line, but you just made me think of something. You work with tons of young people, and this is a generation that views it differently. If the workplace isn't healthy, they're going somewhere else.
Mike: And that means that it behooves the workplace to address as many of these needs as possible so that they can stay open and actually find people to work for them.
Uma: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the idea that you understand when your employees leave you and why they leave you. If you're even slightly interested in figuring that out, the company can take steps towards that. Right? And, and that's the tough stuff. That's the getting everybody on the same page and agreeing like, "Hey, our younger employees, they're telling us in their every six months survey about their attitudes. They're telling us that they don't feel a connection or they don't feel like we really listen to them." And that does need to be again, a dialogue.
Mike: Well, and I think if we do that, we're, our mental health across the board improves.
Mike: This has been great. I, I love talking about stuff like this. I can't thank you enough for joining us. Really appreciate it.
Mike: And of course you all know, I'll put links to Dr. Kedharnath's information on the website and other things to be helpful for your mental health. We invite you all to listen next time when we discuss more issues around substance use, mental health, and people that make a difference.
Mike: We look forward to sharing the air with you then, and until then, we encourage you to stay safe. And if it's not too trite, take care of yourself.
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