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The Role of Mental Wellbeing in Creating an Inclusive Workplace

Coming out of Mental Health Awareness Month in May, the topic of mental health has been pervasive in conversation and the headline of many posts from teams and leagues alike. Nevertheless, individuals deal with mental health daily, 365 days per year, making it a topic that can not only be discussed in one month, and then set to the side for the remainder of the year.

With this in mind, the question becomes, how can sports organizations keep mental health at the forefront of their priorities year round - in season and in the off-season - and reap the benefits of doing so?

Professional athletes including Daniel Bard, Serena Williams, Austin Meadows, and Michael Phelps, have been center stage in bringing attention to mental health in sports. However, in elite sports organizations, mental health can impact both the team on the field and those working in the business offices. An emphasis on mental health has the power to be uniting and a positive force in building an inclusive and equitable workplace for every contributor in an organization. On the flip-side, when it is neglected, it can have a negative impact on productivity and employee retention. According to the American Institute of Stress, in the broader market, “depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1 trillion in lost productivity” on an annual basis. In recent years, organizations have recognized the real business case for emphasizing mental wellbeing in the workplace.

The good news is that both employees and employers can tangibly benefit from the following practices that are found to be common among organizations that have embraced mental health.

Building Understanding through Sharing Resources

Education and understanding is key to an inclusive workplace. When it comes to mental health, there are countless misconceptions that education can effectively clear up.

According to Your Mental Health co-authored by Tony Westbrook and Dr. Chris Brady, Sportsology Group’s Chief Intelligence Officer, “research has an important role to play in understanding the challenges that come with seeking and offering support. Taking that first step of letting someone know we need help can be daunting.” When that first step is daunting, having leaders who have the proper understanding can make this first step easier.

Westbrook and Brady’s book is focused on educating readers on the mental health conditions of depression, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders and self-destructive behaviour. It aims “to demystify, simplify, and clarify the extreme complexity of the issue with which human beings must contend.” Using learning resources, leadership workshops, and sharing literature on the topic are ways to cultivate understanding of the conditions themselves as well as how these may show up in the workplace among your leadership team.

When many leaders enter their roles avoiding the topic of mental health due to a lack of understanding, or fear of “not knowing” how to address the topic, helping them get and stay informed starts with creating or sharing resources with employees, namely managers to learn about mental health and its importance in the workplace. From there skills can be developed for productive conversations about mental health in the workplace.

Training Managers for Trusting Conversations

Managers are often the people within organizations that are most likely to be engaged in conversations with their employees around mental wellbeing. Beyond sharing materials with them to build understanding, by holding skill-based trainings or workshops, leaders can develop the ability to successfully support their employees. These trainings are often focused on the steps needed to support those dealing with obstacles in their mental health and wellbeing through being able to to recognize signs of mental health issues and respond appropriately.

When training managers on creating a safe space to have conversations around mental wellbeing, it starts with trust building. One way to build trust with your employees is through leading by example. Leaders who open up with their own stories, show vulnerability and authenticity which are common qualities among leaders that establish a sense of belonging within their teams and organizations. What is inclusion if not a sense of belonging? From there, leaders can encourage open and honest communication about mental health in both the sporting and business sides of the organization.

In creating space for trusting conversations around mental wellbeing, ‘checking in’ is a great place to start. Leading one-on-one meetings with the message of, “what can we do to support each other?” lets employees know they can talk to their managers or other resources like HR about their concerns without fear of judgement or negative consequences. It also helps employees recognize that leaders also need support at times in this area and that support can be given and required by anyone in the organization, vertically and laterally.

In order to scale the impact, the same “walk-the-talk” approach should be carried to the greater organization’s culture and policies as well.

Culture Paired with Policies

Setting company policies around employee wellness can be ineffective without a company culture that mirrors the aim of the policies. To create an environment where mental health is prioritized, organizations can encourage work-life balance, create flexible work arrangements, and have leaders setting the example from the top down.

Promote work-life balance by setting realistic expectations for workload and working hours. Encourage employees to take breaks, use their vacation time, and maintain a healthy work-life integration. In sports organizations, there may be times of the year where this seems more challenging or even impossible. If that is the case, use foresight and planning to encourage employees to utilize the times of the year they may have less on their plate knowing there are busier seasons ahead. Having regular conversations and acknowledging busy timeframes can keep employees engaged and prepared.

Flexible work arrangements have been a topic among sporting HR leaders Sportsology Group has worked with since the COVID-19 crisis. Something that didn’t exist a few years ago is now the norm and can be a large adjustment. Consider offering flexible work arrangements, such as remote work or flexible hours, to accommodate employees' mental health needs. This can help reduce stress and can lead to improved productivity.

Alongside the policies, leaders should model healthy behaviors and prioritize their own mental well-being. When leaders show that mental health matters, it can encourage employees to do the same.

Wellbeing as a Retention Strategy

Focusing on wellbeing has been found to increase productivity and performance, and improve retention. Through Sportsology Group’s research, we have found that leaders in sports organizations from the NHL, NFL, MLB, NBA, and MLS find employee retention to be one of their largest challenges across departments. We foresee that, over the next 3 years, talent retention will be the leading challenge for CHRO’s across global sport. The organizations that start creating bespoke and creative retention strategies now will win the race for talent. Establishing these practices can ultimately assist in efforts to retain talent alongside producing a more inclusive and equitable workplace.

Interested in learning more about these aspects of mental health? Find Chris Brady’s, Your Mental Health: Understanding Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, Eating Disorders and Self-Destructive Behaviour here.


By Emma Schilling


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