Dr. Tracy Brower has spent her career studying work-life fulfillment and happiness. She’s the author of two books about work-life balance. She also writes extensively for Forbes and Fast Company about how organizations, leaders and employees can thrive even in our turbulent and ever-fluctuating new normal.
Dr. Brower has been referenced previously in our posts about mental health, and she recently joined us for the second episode of Pluralsight’s new podcast, Perspectives in Leadership. This long-form conversation featured topics like how organizations can help employees with their mental health, looking at untrackable aspects of work, empathy in leadership and adjusting our approaches based on our work environments.
What follows are a few of her answers from the conversation. To hear the full discussion, be sure to subscribe to the podcast.
*Answers have been edited for length and clarity*
What would you say are the biggest issues pertaining to mental health in tech currently?
In my mind, there are three major challenges:
The speed and intensity of tech — It requires a ton of focus, which can easily lead to massive amounts of anxiety.
Misplaced proximity — We don’t feel as close as we used to because of remote work. We can’t read body language. It creates this sort of cognitive dissonance where I feel like I’m close to you, but I’m not getting those social cues we’re all so used to relying on.
Empty calories — So many of our interactions now are online, and social media isn’t nurturing at all. When it’s the main source of interaction, it doesn’t fulfill us and can be detrimental to our health. It’s like sugar in the sense that it’s addicting but not good for you.
What are your thoughts on using data to solve for untrackable aspects of work?
I think we can look at data as multiple notions, including performance data and calendar data.
Performance data — In our work-from-home remote life, we’ve all started to feel less valued and less valuable. You don't have in-person interactions and confirmations of your worth any longer. Performance data enables leaders to be able to make those small comments about employee contributions to their teams. Performance data, by definition, is trackable because we’re looking at tasks, sprints, code lines, etc., but we can use these data points to connect and create that feeling of value again. By being comfortable with what those data points are, leaders can more frequently check in with their team members and emphasize value through these touch points
Calendar data — Looking at employee calendars and scheduled meetings is not about being a big brother. It’s about understanding if their calendars are fragmented. Are they able to step away from work for a bit? Are they meeting with others so they’re getting those human connections? Understanding how employees are using their time can help better understand their mental health status. Using this information to open lines of communication about how people are working can be beneficial. Leaders need to be transparent about their reasoning, though, and flexible in creating any necessary response plans to those unique calendar situations.
Can other types of communication that aren’t data-centric, like mentoring and morale-building, be tracked, and should they be?
It’s all about open lines of communication and feeling comfortable conversing with leaders. One thing we can easily track are those mentorship moments because we can discuss what is being taught and learned and how it’s beneficial. We can look at how many hours we met doing these things, because I do believe what gets measured gets done.
We can also track, either through calendar data or just anecdotally, how often we’re meeting with people outside of our direct teams. How frequently are we connecting with people outside of our silos or our organization? That can be beneficial for career growth and knowledge base expansion, but it also combats the empty-calories moments we discussed earlier.
I believe that some of the most important things in the world are the least measurable. Whether it’s joy or love or bonding, we can count a lot of the things that move us towards development or positive mental health but we might not be able to put data points on those actual aspects, and that’s okay, too.
Building off that last point, do you think it’s realistic to have tech leaders change their mindset to better understand the more untrackable aspects of mental health of their employees?
The great news is the answer is absolutely yes! There is a substantial amount of data that shows how empathy directly affects productivity. 61% of people say they feel more innovative when they have an empathetic leader compared to 13% when they don’t. People with empathetic leaders feel their companies are more inclusive, and these companies have better retention. Their employees feel more capable of juggling work and life because they trust they can have open, honest conversations with their leaders.
The truth of the matter for leaders is that whether you’re focusing on empathy for the quote-unquote “right” reasons or because you’re focused on the bottom line, regardless of the reason, you’re being more empathetic and your teams will feel more valued and productive. It’s a win-win situation.
“As a leader, you don’t have to be a social worker or mental health expert. It’s enough to be able to identify that someone might need help and then connect them with the proper resources.”
How can team members foster empathy in our remote working environments?
Company culture tends to be a mirror. It’s a reflection of the leader. Whatever traits and characteristics the leader demonstrates tends to filter down to other team members. A leader can empower others by being a great example but they can also help employees bond together through cross-team projects. Statistically, you build stronger bonds with your fellow employees when you do tasks together.
Finally, allow opportunities for feedback from employees. Let everyone share their thoughts, not just in one-on-one meetings, but also in retrospectives and daily stand-ups. The more we share, even in bite-sized pieces, the more we get to know each other. And the better we know each other, the more empathetic we feel towards one another.
Should leaders adjust their approach to employee mental health based on team or organization size?
I don’t think, organizationally, the approach should differ, but it might need to be adjusted from an interaction perspective. I mentioned earlier that culture tends to be a mirror, but another way to think of it is as a multiplier or trickle-down situation.
A CEO might not be able to interact with every employee, but they can show empathy to their ten direct reports and emphasize the importance of it to those leaders who are then more likely to do the same with their teams and so on. As companies grow, it can be challenging for the people at the top to adjust their leadership style, but if they continue to focus on being empathetic with the people they interact with, then they have a huge opportunity to have that mindset reach a multiplied number of employees.
Sociologically, familiarity breeds acceptance. The more we know someone, the more we tend to accept them. We start to get them, and we can more easily read their moods and how to interact with them. We have context and data about their lives, so we don’t draw unfair or unfounded conclusions.
Regardless of how empathetic or communicative an organization is, there will inevitably still be employee burnout, which creates attrition. What tips do you have for leaders to combat burnout in a healthy way?
A fundamental part of burnout is feeling like you’ve hit a dead end with no outlet. Leaders can demonstrate the path forward or a new opportunity employees can tackle, but they can also emphasize to the team members how their work matters in the big picture. That’s a huge combatant of burnout.
Organizations truly need to take burnout seriously, though. You can’t just say, “Oh, you just need some self care.” Bath bombs don’t cure burnout. We have to help people set boundaries for themselves, but leaders also need to be responsive. I know everyone is extremely busy, but there is so much data that says being responsive and available is the biggest thing leaders can do to create a healthy work environment for their team members.
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