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Talking about mental health: More supportive and resilient workplaces

Talking about mental health: More supportive and resilient workplaces

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This article is the third in a series co-ordinated by Sarah Taylor which focuses on mental health issues in the legal profession. Victoria Hallum, the Chief International Advisor at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, writes about concrete steps we can take to make our workplaces more supportive and resilient.

There is a lot of talk at the moment about mental health and the law. When I first heard that lawyers in New Zealand have higher rates of depression, anxiety and stress and report lower levels of mental wellbeing than other professions, I wondered if this was mostly the case in private practice. Were lawyers in government experiencing the same problems? My team is made up of a lot of really committed, capable young lawyers, mostly in their late twenties. They seem energetic, happy and confident and seem to really enjoy their roles travelling the world to international negotiations and providing advice on the significant and interesting issues we cover.

But when I asked them “what worries you at work?” their answers were pretty interesting.

They replied:

  • “Getting things wrong.”
  • “Making a stupid mistake and embarrassing the government.”
  • “Giving advice that is wrong. Missing something, failing to weigh something properly and people relying on it.”
  • “Making mistakes. Lawyers in government are given the really tough questions and unlike our policy colleagues we can be proven wrong.”
  • “I worry about whether the advice I give is right, especially with last minute requests.
  • “People thinking I am not good enough”.
  • “I worry about the significance of our work and the pressure I might get it wrong.”

In short, there was a lot more worry and anxiety than I had expected.

So, what can we, as managers, do about this? How can we make our work environments as supportive and positive as possible for our colleagues?

I did some work on this with one of my fellow managers, Alice Revell, and we came up with two things which we are now trying to implement with our staff: creating psychological safety and building resilient teams.

Psychological safety

Victoria Hallum
Victoria Hallum

I was intrigued to find out that Google had carried out a two-year study on what makes successful teams and concluded that the single most important factor was something called psychological safety.

Psychological safety is the shared belief that your team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. It’s about feeling safe to show yourself without fear of negative consequences for self-image, your status or your career. In psychologically safe teams staff members feel accepted and respected and are comfortable to speak up with ideas, questions, concerns and even mistakes.

The research on the benefits is pretty compelling, especially in complex and uncertain environments. Psychological safety has been shown to:

  • Promote diversity and inclusion;
  • Increase the amount members learn from mistakes;
  • Boost employee engagement; and
  • Improve team innovation and success.

While the case for psychological safety is really convincing, one thing that makes it difficult to establish in teams is that we have some pretty strong in-built defence mechanisms that get in the way of it (see the box above for some examples). To create a psychologically safe environment we have to disarm these natural reflexes.

My managers and I have set some goals around psychological safety in our teams. We want our team members to feel free to be themselves so we benefit from their varied perspectives. We want to be an environment that promotes learning and innovation. We want our teams to be a “circle of safety” from which they can branch out.

This sounds great but we are also aware that, as lawyers, we are highly trained to criticise and find fault, errors and lapses of logic. In fact, you could say that this is an essential part of our professional toolbox. Lawyers are highly judgemental by nature. This makes it particularly challenging to create a psychologically safe working environment.

So we are not sure exactly how we are going to succeed. It is a work in progress but these are some of the things we are trying to do:

  • We are modelling openness and vulnerability – this builds trust and encourages others to follow suit. This means being honest about what we don’t know and making our thinking process visible to our colleagues.
  • Making time for shared activities and interpersonal connections. You can’t trust people you don’t know.
  • When chairing a meeting always give everyone the opportunity to speak. Don’t assume that because someone has not spoken they have nothing to say. Find ways to draw out contributions from quieter team members.
  • Forget the “golden rule” of treating people how you want to be treated. Instead find out how they want to be treated. They may have different needs and preferences.
  • Without behaving like automatons, we are working on regulating our negative emotions. Negative emotions can be very catching in the workplace, especially when demonstrated by senior people.
  • How you treat “mistakes” is vital. The history of human development is paved with mistakes without which discoveries and innovation would never have occurred. We are trying to take a continuous learning and improvement approach to making mistakes and hope through this to reduce the stigma and fear around mistakes.

How will we know we are succeeding? I think we will know we are making progress when:

  • Team members feel free to ask questions and share partially formed ideas without worrying they will be considered inadequate.
  • Team members, especially those from diverse backgrounds, feel reduced pressure to conform and replicate what is around them in order to be accepted and “part of the team”.
  • There is less anxiety about making mistakes and mistakes that do occur are seen as a collective opportunity for growth and improvement.

Building resilient teams

This was something I started thinking about after the 2017 election, particularly during the “100-day period” immediately after the election when the new government had set a large number of really ambitious goals.

A lot of advice was being given on really significant issues with very tight timeframes in a charged environment. I was concerned about the stress staff were under and the cumulative effect of this and organised a resilience course with Umbrella (an organisation focused on providing specialist wellbeing and mental health training and support). I was keen to do something but had some reservations about the idea of a course. I wondered if by offering the course we were simply putting more individual responsibility on our staff – and didn’t want to put more pressure on people to be “strong” and “cope”.

It turns out I was wrong about that. What I hadn’t appreciated was that resilience is not simply an individual characteristic that individuals display in challenging circumstances but that whole teams can be resilient, collectively.

Resilience is the ability, in the face of challenges, to:

  • Recover – bounce back,
  • Resist – tolerate but not succumb,
  • Adapt in response,
  • Thrive – learn and grow.

The course provided us with a shared framework and language about stress and resilience that has been really helpful.

Woman behind curtains

Two areas of the course that particularly resonated were the sections on mental fitness and emotional agility.

The mental fitness section required us to “think about thinking” and was a good starting point for lawyers who like to be analytical. We focused on common thinking patterns and how they can act as barriers to problem-solving and get in the way of more balanced thinking. What interested me was how much some of these thinking patterns were ingrained in our legal training.

Examples were:

Catastrophising: Portraying something as much worse than it is. Taking a worst-case scenario approach.

Mind reading: Where we assume we know what the other person is thinking and often think the worst.

Personalising: Focusing too much on ourselves and blaming ourselves unreasonably.

Globalising: Which involves sweeping often negative statements instead of focusing on specifics which is usually more helpful.

Perfectionism: Where we lose sight of the bigger picture and focus on the little things we didn’t do well.

Labelling the thought patterns and discussing how to overcome them was really powerful. It gave the team a shared language and framework and helped them think how to go beyond these barriers and develop more balanced and flexible thinking.

The other area that worked really well for the team was talking about emotional agility. This is about emotion control – but not in the rigid sense of simply suppressing them. We learnt first to simply notice, recognise, and accept the emotions experienced in the workplace. Then we learnt to determine whether we need to moderate the emotions. And finally we discussed strategies to reduce or change the emotion while at the same time avoiding the impulsive behaviour often connected to the emotion. We learnt to distinguish between useful strategies such as reappraisal, distraction, acceptance and not-so-useful strategies such as rumination, suppression and avoidance. This discussion of emotions also helped highlight the importance of positive emotions in the workplace – and strategies to boost them.

Three steps for emotional agility in the workplace:

  • Notice, recognise and accept the emotion.
  • Determine whether it is helpful or needs to be moderated.
  • Adopt strategies to reduce or adjust the emotion, while avoiding impulsive behaviour connected to it.

In conclusion, the key message from me is that though many of us work in naturally stressful environments, as team leaders and colleagues there is a lot we can do to promote mental wellbeing, create safer work environments and build resilient teams.

New Zealand has come a long way in recent years in improving physical safety in the workplace. I believe that psychological safety is the next challenge. For many of us this may involve a blurring of the personal and the professional that is unfamiliar and uncomfortable but the benefits in my view are worth it, if we can create work environments where we can truly thrive.

We are very keen to learn what others are doing to create (or maintain) mentally healthy and supportive workplaces. If you or your team are doing something exciting or innovative in this space, please contact Sarah on the email below.

Victoria Hallum is the Chief International Legal Adviser at MFAT and leads a team of over 20 lawyers providing advice to the government on all aspects of international law, including trade, environment and natural resources and peace and security issues.

If you would like to contribute to an article in this ongoing series or have a topic you would like covered, please contact Sarah Taylor

Our self-defence mechanisms

Don’t want to look ignorant?

Well, don’t ask any questions.

Don’t want to seem incompetent?

Never admit doubt or weakness.

Don’t take any risks.

Don’t want to be seen as intrusive?

Don’t offer any ideas to others.

Don’t want to be considered negative?

Don’t question the status quo.

Some useful resources:

Information on Google’s research into psychological safety and tools to apply it to your own workplace.

Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.

Lifeline Aotearoa 0800 54 33 54 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text HELP (4357).

Suicide Crisis Helpline 0508 82 88 65 (0508 TAUTOKO).

Samaritans 0800 726 666.

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