In the past few weeks alone, over half a dozen companies have said that their big focus for 2019 is tackling mental health. Many of them don’t yet know what the solution might be. What they do know is that the problem is escalating, and they need to fix it soon — especially given how expensive mental health claims are. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that work-related stress costs the U.S. economy nearly $300 billion each year.

While I commend these organizations for wanting to fix the problem, I don’t think “fixing” is the right answer. We need to find solutions to prevent the problem from arising in the first place.

Things That Break Us

In the trailer for the new TV series “A Million Little Things,” one of the lead characters takes his life, and another abandons his plan to do the same. Pressures, broken relationships, lack of purpose – their million little stressors in work and life broke them.

There are mental health problems that require formal interventions, but many are less about diagnosed issues and more a result of the million little things in work and life that, over time, break our employees, too. Life Meets Work research on the prevalence of burnout revealed that over half (57 percent) of all professionals feel exhausted by the environment where they work, and more than seven in 10 workers have physically burnt out at least once in their lifetime.

My husband likes to remind me that TV and reality aren’t the same thing, so I keep that in mind, but just like in “A Million Little Things,” suicide, addiction, broken marriages and health issues related to work and life stress are rampant. Stress-induced alopecia (losing your hair because of stress!), standing on the edge of a parking garage ready to jump on a Friday afternoon, and literally turning yellow and dying from not taking the time to go to the doctor (think backed-up kidneys) are real stories of people from organizations where high-performance cultures are the norm – organizations that are ready to “fix” mental health problems.

Rethinking Break/Fix

Instead of just fixing the problems, let’s prevent the problems in the first place. Let’s teach people how to live in a more sustainable, sane ways — ways that don’t lead to anxiety, depression and addiction. Behind many mental health issues are things like perfectionism, guilt, not being able to let go, lack of strategies for managing stress, not feeling equipped to have courageous conversations and the need for control.

Furthermore, we are behind many of the mental health issues we want to “fix.” We are creating workplaces and careers that aren’t sustainable. We have created cultures where people are afraid to fail. We’ve promoted leaders who lack emotional intelligence. We’ve created expectations and workloads that aren’t manageable for two people, yet alone one. Yet we wonder why mental health problems are rife.

Our Own Million Little Things

As Brené Brown describes in her latest book, “Dare to Lead,” most of us “armor up” every day. With armor like perfectionism and control, we don’t have to be vulnerable. We can feel “good.”

But this armor can crack. It can contribute to our anxiety, cause us to medicate to mask the fear or pain, and lead to depression.

Sometimes, it doesn’t feel very easy to be a productive, effective, engaged employee while struggling to also be a great (fill in the blank). We each have our own way of armoring up to feel like we can succeed in both work and life, and our own combination of “crazy-making” behaviors become our million little things:

  • Color-sorting kids’ Legos before bed (a true story from a workshop participant)
  • Rewriting a report (instead of giving feedback)
  • Saying “yes” to things that don’t align with your values
  • Giving up working out and/or self-care to check another thing off the list
  • Not nurturing friendships/relationships
  • Trying to be “enough” on social media

Changing Mindsets

Organizations are examining what they should change to impact mental health issues – and there’s plenty to change. But it definitely takes two to tango. Personal habits and mindsets are just as much to blame as organizational pressures. If we don’t address both, we can’t adequately address mental health issues. Here’s how:

Stop the insanity. Teach employees sustainable habits for career and life. Provide coaching so they can work through their perfectionism and control demons. Help them eliminate their million little things before they become big things.

Humanize leaders. Create more emotionally intelligent leaders who manage capacity, are empathetic and recognize the whole person. Help them recognize signs of overwork, stress and burnout. Give them language and tools to proactively do something about it.

Be realistic. Revisit workload and expectations to make them reasonable to attain. Stop giving badges of honor for those that work the most hours and sacrifice everything to get to the top. Recognize the contributions of everyone and make it manageable for all to enjoy a life too.

Eliminate the “hero complex.” Create an environment where asking for help is encouraged and conversations about needs are second nature. Even as adults, most of us are looking for approval and acknowledgement and therefore don’t show signs of weakness. Make it OK to be vulnerable and teach people how to ask for the support they need from their team and organization.

This isn’t about fixing your employees’ mental health problems. This is about getting to the root of the problem. It’s about overhauling the system that’s leading to these problems. It’s about making work and life more sustainable – for the organizations, employees, families and communities that are impacted by the current mental health epidemic. It’s about looking in the mirror, owning our role in this, and doing something proactive to prevent — not fix the problem.

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