It can be easy to forget that when we turn up for work and put on our professional hat, or even mask, that we are still part of the human race with all the joys and the challenges that involves. We are social beings and are hardwired to connect with others. This does not disappear at work.
Being human means recognising that we all have our own unique and different experiences, are from different backgrounds and come with all the complexity that that brings. In our conversations we cannot disconnect from this – humans are messy and imperfect and our emotions provide a huge part of the framework we use to communicate effectively. Within organisations we are only just beginning to recognise, promote and harness the deep value of this diversity.
In the context of facilitating better mental health at work, there is a critically important lesson for us all here. The term ‘mental health’ is generally understood to mean our emotional and psychological wellbeing. These aspects of ourselves we do not typically share very much of at work; however we are all inherently emotive and to care for our own and our colleague’s mental health, we must begin showing up more fully at work.
Some of the organisations doing a good job of shifting stigma and creating mentally healthy workplaces are those where somebody in a senior position has had an experience of mental illness and has been prepared to talk about it. This tends to open the arena up for people to feel safe to have similar conversations themselves.
One way to understand and practice ‘being more human’ at work is to consider it through the lens of Conversational Wisdom®. The ‘Being Human’ part of this approach consists of the three elements: Vulnerability, Curiosity and Relationship.
Brené Brown defines vulnerability as ‘uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure’. Leaning into a conversation where we ask for, or offer help requires us to be skilful and courageous in our conversations. It means taking risks in what we say and ask, and it means showing a high degree of humility and a level of commitment to speak honestly and openly, even when we don’t know what the response will be. It requires us to be brave and is therefore a vulnerable choice. But it is a critical choice if we are to actively support better mental health. It is not always easy in practice, but practice is what it takes – continued and ongoing practice, with support at an organisational level.
As people leaders and managers there is very often opportunity to be more curious in our conversations. This sounds simple enough, but we know that in reality it can often be complex. In many cases we rise through the ranks by providing answers and solutions, and not by being curious about what others think, or how they are feeling.
Curiosity means remembering the importance of not always knowing. In conversation, remembering this and acting on it by asking genuine questions helps us gain greater understanding of how our colleagues are doing emotionally and allows us to best support them and their mental health at work.
Curiosity enables us to go into a conversation with somebody and not feel like we have to try and ‘fix it’ for them. Just by being there we can support in some way, even if it is just by listening.
Our relationships with colleagues significantly impact the quality of our daily experience and our level of engagement at work. In a world of ever-growing technology, our human relationships are already being disrupted – we now tend to email where we once would have spoken.
Intentionally maintaining and growing our work relationships is critical to enhancing honest and courageous conversations around mental health. Staying aware of and actively demonstrating that we care for each other at work, helps us to do this.
We are getting better at being more human at work, but there is still some way to go and if we are serious about being mentally healthy, we all need to intentionally accelerate this shift by sharing more of our emotional selves at work, including our unique experiences of mental health and mental illness.
 Brown, B. (2012) Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
This article was published by Training Journal 17 May 2019 as part of Mental Health Awareness Week.