Leadership vulnerability. Have leaders share their own mental health journeys. One client had their second in command host a panel on mental health, where he and others in the business talked openly about their struggles, fears, and anxieties. The behavior you want to see in your organization has to come from the top.
As a part of my series about the “5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Lindsay Kohler.
Lindsay Kohler is the lead behavioral scientist at employee engagement consultancy scarlettabbott. She bridges the gap between academic theory and consultancy to create insights employers can use to increase engagement.
She has more than 10 years of employee engagement consulting experience for Fortune 500 companies and holds an MSc in Behavioural Science from The London School of Economics and Political Science. Her writing appears in a wide variety of industry publications, including Forbes, TheHRDirector, Workforce, and Human Resource Executive.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I started in benefits communication at Nordstrom by happenstance — let’s just say I made a desperate plea to the Chief HR Officer to give me a chance in any role as a recent graduate with ZERO work experience. The opportunity that I interviewed for was in the benefits department and we just went from there.
Along the way, most of the campaigns I was running focused on changing health and financial behaviors — two of the hardest areas! So I found myself turning to other fields, and that’s how I came upon behavioral science.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I keynoted a conference on my third day of work at a new job — the trust they must have had in me! That feels like a pretty big risk on their part. And of course, there are the very humorous things that occur when you work in a creative field, like questionable photo choices or strategic use of Photoshop to remove certain … things.
But I suppose the most interesting story is one of resilience and humility. My first time consulting alone, in person, at a BIG company, I was wearing a new pair of shoes. They had this unfortunate design where the heel of one would get stuck on the other. I stood up to go to the whiteboard and I fell flat on my face. And then I got up, took two more steps, and fell flat on my face again. But I laughed it off, took the shoes off, and they eventually became our largest client.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Set boundaries and remember that more time worked doesn’t equal more value. And hey, it’s okay to not raise your hand and it’s okay to say ‘no’ to colleagues. It’s better for everyone if you are operating at your best, and that means saying no and listening to your body to manage that energy.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Trust your people to do the job you hired them to — you have to step away from the day-to-day micromanaging — and don’t put up with brilliant assholes. Great culture comes from a place of respect and psychological safety.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
My father always says, “Take the high road,” and it is especially beneficial at work. I have to remember that whenever I feel slighted, annoyed, frustrated — really any negative emotion that crops up at work –my instinct is to lash back out or devolve into pettiness or passive-aggressiveness: it’s just not worth it. Take the high road, stay above it, and prove you’re right via your actions.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. In recent years many companies have begun offering mental health programs for their employees. For the sake of inspiring others, we would love to hear about five steps or initiatives that companies have taken to help improve or optimize their employees mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?
1: Leadership vulnerability. Have leaders share their own mental health journeys. One client had their second in command host a panel on mental health, where he and others in the business talked openly about their struggles, fears, and anxieties. The behavior you want to see in your organization has to come from the top.
2: Normalise the topic. Get as many people as possible included in the conversation. You can do this by creating a place for sharing these stories that feel authentic to your company. For example, Facebook ran a campaign called #OpenUp that encouraged people to share stories and it was underpinned by the imagery of butterflies, a universal symbol of hope. Identify a place to collect these stories so people can browse and feel less alone (and share their own!).
3: Framing is key. Use ‘poor mental health’ versus ‘mental illness, or ‘topic’ versus ‘issue’. Words such as illness and issue have inherent negative connotations that can make people hesitant to speak up.
4: Create a book club, sponsored by those across the business, that dives into different aspects of mental health. Themes could include good news, meditation, or inspiring stories.
5: Check-in with your peers. EY had a famous campaign — ‘r u okay?’ — that encouraged colleagues to check in with each other just by asking that simple question. You can take that a step further and create a crib sheet of conversation starters for people to use to check in with each other. This identifies what questions people can ask to open up the conversation: things like “How is your energy today?”
These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?
This is where I always advise to fall back on stories, stories, and more stories. Not only does it make something that could feel less tangible more real, but it also brings out the emotional angle — and we know emotion is a large driver of behavior change.
From your experience or research, what are different steps that each of us as individuals, as a community and as a society, can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling stressed, depressed, anxious and having other mental health issues ? Can you explain?
Start with empathy. And a key to empathy is asking better questions. Challenge yourself to be honest about how you are checking in with those around you — kindness and understanding go a long way.
Habits can play a huge role in mental wellness. What are the best strategies you would suggest to develop good healthy habits for optimal mental wellness that can replace any poor habits?
You don’t want to bite off more than you can chew, so I’d suggest starting small. Identify one poor habit, such as drinking too much. Then focus not on replacing it, but eliminating it.
For example, don’t buy alcohol when you’re at the store — an easy enough moment of willpower — and then it won’t be in the house to drink. Slowly, you can introduce something to take its place — painting or tea, for example. But I think the key thing is not to try to drastically overhaul your life at once.
Do you use any meditation, breathing or mind-calming practices that promote your mental wellbeing? We’d love to hear about all of them. How have they impacted your own life?
I’m not temperamentally suited to meditation, I’m afraid! But a quick walk or just embracing stillness for a moment or two helps to calm me down when I feel my blood pressure rising.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
I feel like this is such a predictable answer coming from a behavioral scientist, but it was the book Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely that got me started on the behavioral science path. I started thinking about how I could apply some of the principles he talked about in the book, such as social norms and loss aversion, to my work trying to nudge better health and financial behaviors.
When I finally got a chance to do so on a 401(k) contribution campaign and we saw about 50% more people than the year before taking action, I was hooked on behavioral science.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Well, that’s certainly flattering! I’m on a personal crusade to fix healthcare in America. Yes, I know lots have tried (hello Amazon/Berkshire-Hathaway’s failed venture, Haven). But employers truly have the buying power, and they can use that to force better pricing practices and more transparency, while we work to fix the inoperability of records on the back end. There just has to be a better way and system.
And I don’t think free healthcare is the answer, either. Living in the UK, I’ll be honest — the NHS is a great idea, but they don’t have the resources to provide timely or exceptional healthcare. When I have a problem, I pay out of pocket privately because I’m not convinced in the NHS’s ability to adequately diagnose and treat the issue. There must be a middle ground somewhere where it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to get quality healthcare, and healthcare workers have the support they need, too.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
I’m a regular contributor for Forbes, and you can follow my profile to see the latest stories. My debut book, Even Better If Building better businesses, better leaders, and better selves will be out this fall and contains lots of stories, science, and ideas around mental health.
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!