Mental Health Is a Huge Part of Who You Are — Here’s How to Prioritize This at Work

Sponsored by ZS

Michelle Lu. Photo courtesy of ZS.

Michelle Lu. Photo courtesy of ZS.

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June 15, 2024 at 7:2PM UTC

What role does your company play in supporting your mental health? Well, “everyone is on their own journey when it comes to mental health, which means it’s important for companies to lay the groundwork of providing a safe space and resources for their employees — no matter where they are in their journey,” says Michelle Lu, Associate Consultant at ZS

And Lu is speaking from a place of expertise in this area! Outside of client work, she is the External Coordinator on the Global Healthy Minds @ ZS team, which works to bring mental health to the forefront and ingrain the importance of prioritizing mental health at ZS and beyond. 

Through her experience in this space, Lu has seen how more and more companies are elevating the importance of mental health, just like ZS has. This is of the utmost importance since, as Lu notes, “our mental health is a huge part of who we are.”

“Ensuring our colleagues' wellness is beneficial for everyone’s individual fulfillment and the company’s success since mental health can affect someone’s productivity, communication, job performance, and physical capability to function daily,” says Lu. “Building a culture that destigmatizes mental health ensures that colleagues can feel comfortable communicating and sharing their mental health experiences and taking the right measures for themselves without fear that it will jeopardize their jobs.”

And, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, job seekers are increasingly listing mental health as a top consideration when accepting a job offer. Studies on how the pandemic affected us “showed a huge uptick in workers who believed their employers are more concerned about employees’ mental health than before and agree that how employers support mental health will be an important consideration for them when they look for future work,” shares Lu.

Here, Lu dives more into advice on protecting your mental health at work, how companies can help, and what a psychologically safe workplace looks like. Read on for important information that will help you identify a workplace that will support your full self.

To begin, do you have any tips on how to best protect your mental health at work?

It’s important to build specific strategies into your life that will foster sustainability. For instance:

  1. Build in breaks throughout the workday. Even if I have a packed schedule, I still build in at least five minutes every hour to decompress. Often, I will use a version of the Pomodoro Method and dedicate 45 minutes for heads down work and then 15 minutes to decompress. That way, my 45 minutes are action-packed and highly productive, and my 15 minutes of decompression reinvigorate me.

  2. Prioritize what makes you happy and supports your mental health — and make it non-negotiable. For me, I achieve this through regular workouts. I put workouts on my work calendar as public. This is so my team can see that I have regular commitments after normal work hours (which should not be scheduled over unless absolutely unavoidable), and so I can stay motivated and productive throughout the day knowing that I’ve got something to look forward to!

And what is ZS’s role in helping you prioritize your mental health?

ZS offers resources for those seeking immediate support as well as for those seeking long-term support, whether that be counseling, mindfulness, wellness, financial or legal assistance, dependent or elderly care, and much more! 

Additionally, ZS supports our Healthy Minds @ ZS team by providing resources to develop programs every year at both a global and local scale with the intention to destigmatize mental health and elevate its importance. For example, our global program for World Mental Health Day includes an internal video release showing ZS leadership speaking candidly about their own relationships with mental health and where they wish and envision the importance of mental health will be ingrained into the future of our firm. In addition, we are inviting an internationally renowned guest speaker and therapist, Guy Winch, to join our colleagues around the world live on World Mental Health Day to speak to about the science of emotional health, impact of work stress, how to transform maladaptive thoughts into productive ones, and when it may be time to seek professional support. 

What are your top three pieces of advice on how to handle a conversation about mental health with a manager?

Here’s how I would encourage a colleague to think about holding a conversation about mental health with a manager:

  1. Self-reflect. Take a deep breath to first understand what you’re experiencing. How long have you been feeling this way? Do you think it is episodic or chronic? Can you decipher if it suddenly came upon you or is related to something that happened in your personal life, work life, or via a macro-stressor (e.g., COVID-19)? Second, understand what the impact is on your work performance (such as in regards to productivity, missing work, or a lack of connection to peers).

  2. Explore your comfort level. You are in control here, and it’s up to you how much you feel comfortable sharing. If you realize that you are not comfortable speaking to your manager, then perhaps turn to someone in HR or another manager you may feel closer to. What’s important here is that you feel psychologically safe when opening up to this person.

  3. Share your experience. Set up time on the calendar. Don’t cut your time short; budget enough time to have a fruitful, open conversation because your mental health matters! During the conversation, remember to be clear about how your mental health experiences are impacting your work. You can also ask for your manager’s help. Know that while they are likely not a therapist, they may be able to point you to someone at the company who can provide the best support. In the end, it’s about co-creating a solution on how to seek the right support so that you can bring your best self to work.

Moving on to psychological safety, in your own words, what is this and why is it important?

Psychological safety is about truly believing that you can speak up, express your ideas and feelings, and take risks without fear of judgment by those around you. 

If you feel psychologically safe in the various environments and with the people you surround yourself with, then you’ll likely find that you will perform better, be more productive, and open up channels of innovation and creativity! Just think of a time in your life when you felt proud of yourself and fulfilled. It’s likely that you were in an environment that allowed you to challenge yourself because you felt the support and engagement of those around you. 

How can managers create psychological safety on their teams?

How team leaders act themselves and take measures to set and maintain the right tone is critical to cultivating a psychologically safe team environment. 

Let me give you a real example of one of my particularly amazing managers. This manager is one of the best leaders I have had the honor to work with in high part because they create an open, safe environment to bring your whole self to work. So, how did this manager do it? 

  1. Compassion. This manager demonstrates support and concern for their team, not just as employees, but as humans. They set the tone by ensuring that the team can share not only what their professional goals are, but also their equally important passions outside of work. They share their own life experiences and how factors outside of work may or may not be impacting how they feel and perform that week. This is really inspiring to the team because we want to step up and support one another knowing the treatment will be returned. If you’re a manager who doesn’t want to be super open about your life, that’s okay, too; however, it’s important to create a space where your direct reports know they can share highlights and challenges with you and the team and expect support.

  2. Consultative style. This manager does a consistently great job seeking input from their team and is deliberate in creating a space of creativity, open debate, and consideration of everyone’s views when problem solving. Leading with this attitude ensures the entire team has the opportunity to speak up, is heard, and is aligned on the ultimate goals and conclusions that we reach as a collective. We can learn and grow together. 

On a larger scale, how does ZS prioritize psychological safety?

ZS’ core values are: Treat people right. Get it right. Do the right thing. These are the principles that were set for us by the firm’s founders.

Let’s focus on “Treat people right.” This means that we believe in treating others with dignity and respect and providing a supportive, collective culture that inspires action. This core value transpires in our day-to-day life in three ways:

  1. Open and honest communication. ZS elevates the importance of open and honest communication in many ways, such as by providing bi-directional professional feedback, our annual global firm health checks, and hosting various committees that actively listen and bring back learnings to leadership to take action on. ZS also has an open-door policy, which empowers us to make introductions, connect with anyone we want, and expect the same from others!

  2. Flexibility. ZS does a great job in offering flexibility in our working style. For example, in case of personal appointments, you can block your calendar and, as long as you communicate ahead of time with your teams, everyone supports one another. ZS also offers Flex Schedules, which is a great option for anyone who loves their job, but requires some flexibility to work reduced hours for personal reasons. Finally, I think it’s great that calendars are set to be public by default. I see on both leadership and growing ZSers’ calendars things like “Peloton,” “drop kids to school,'' or “workout,'' listed outside of typical business hours. Although we’re in consulting where the hours will be longer than eight to five, we can build our “non-negotiables” into our public calendars to protect our own time and to inspire others to do the same. 

  3. Community. Finally, I love that you can find your various communities at ZS. It’s a large firm that feels much smaller than it is partly because of our wealth of communities. These include our working teams and others such as Healthy Minds @ ZSAsian @ ZS, and Women @ ZS — all of which I am a part of! This inspires us to bring our unique perspectives and experiences every day and allows us to feel supported and energized to show up as our authentic selves.

If you’re looking for a psychologically safe workplace that truly supports your mental health, check out ZS.

Fairygodboss is proud to partner with ZS. Find a job there today!

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