Growing up as a proud Gen-Xer, I was taught the rules of professionalism in the workplace. I understood I was to leave my personal problems at the door. There’s no crying in baseball, nor is there on the job. I was there to serve customers and get stuff done. When I punched in for work, I was expected to punch out of any thoughts or feelings that might interfere with my duties. “Mental health” wasn’t discussed in the workplace. Nor did anyone complain about “toxic work environments.” Yeah, you might have worked for a jerk or felt some stress. But that was just part of the job. We all accepted that work was something to be endured.
Not anymore. Societal values have shifted. Mental illness is better understood. More importantly, it’s less stigmatized. People can seek treatment in a (slightly) more open, compassionate environment with less fear for how they’ll be judged.
That openness has shed light on how much suffering is actually happening. According to the World Health Organization, one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives, anxiety and depressive disorders being among the most common issues. During the pandemic, rates of anxiety and depression went up by 25%. Mental health conditions are the leading cause of disability in the United States, with an estimated 44 million adults experiencing mental illness each year.
This is impacting business. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that depression alone costs the U.S. economy $210 billion in lost productivity annually. Poor mental health at work can lead to increased callouts, decreased productivity, and higher turnover. It can make managing a team of restaurant workers mentally taxing on management itself.
Therein lies the opportunity for restaurant operators. Creating a workplace culture that supports mental health can help to mitigate these costs and improve employee retention and performance.
What follows are 10 ways small business owners and franchisees can support the mental health of employees. There’s no way you’re actually going to do all of these things. You’re trying to run a business. But even if you just embrace one or two ideas to address employee wellness, it’ll go a long way.
- Open your own mind. You’ve got enough things to worry about. Addressing your employees’ mental health may seem like an unnecessary distraction and a monumental burden. But in today’s marketplace for labor, it’s necessary to be competitive. Let go of any resistance and embrace the opportunity to do better by your team. It’s the right thing to do and it’ll be good for business.
- Create a safe environment for employees to communicate mental health concerns. Acknowledge to your team your commitment to their well-being. Invite them to speak freely to you or a designated person about any issues and assure them their concerns will be addressed seriously, compassionately, and privately.
- Build a positive team culture. How employees are with each other impacts the way their time at work feels. Teams don’t bond because they’re told to or because of motivational posters on the wall. They connect via deliberate work on behalf of management. Hire for cultural fit. Train new employees not just on their work but on teamwork. Create teambuilding experiences and rituals that allow employees to connect as people. The bonds they form will build loyalty, create a cohesive staff, and make work feel like a healthier, safer place to be.
- Survey your team. This is a great way to assess their feelings and handle them before things get worse (for them and for you). Ask about their mental health and their thoughts on the work environment. Ask how things can be improved. Keep the survey anonymous for those who may feel uncomfortable opening up to their superiors. You can always ask if they’d like someone to follow up with them and request their identity if that’s the case. Take their responses seriously and act accordingly.
- Conduct regular one-on-ones. You may already be doing this to discuss job performance. Use this time also to build trust and gauge their well-being.
- Identify and address workplace stressors. What are the tasks that take the most toll? How can those tasks be altered to make them more manageable? Look for ways to change procedures to maximize efficiency and minimize unpleasantness.
- Make it easier for employees to get time off. Often called “mental health days,” these added breaks allow team members to decompress. They also communicate your recognition of their needs and commitment to their health. Don’t ask too many questions when they request this time.
- Build more flexibility into your scheduling. The data is clear. In today’s climate, workers want more say over when they work. Rather than resisting this, find ways to accommodate. Many restaurants now hire more workers (when they can) and provide more cross training. Some pay more for less desirable shifts. There are apps and scheduling technologies that make it easier for employees to swap shifts and even allow for self-scheduling. Recognize those employees who regularly avail themselves to cover others’ shifts. And, of course, post the schedule as early as possible to give team members time to plan accordingly and make adjustments. Scheduling is a complex and evolving operational element in all businesses, but especially in restaurants. Stay on top of this and continue to refine it.
- Offer mental health assistance as a perk. These days most restaurant owners are trying to pay their way out of labor shortages through signing bonuses and increased wages. It may actually be more economical to divert some of those funds to employee wellness programs. Companies such as Included Health offer franchise business owners affordable telehealth options for employees that give them immediate access to MDs and mental health professionals. Early results of such services found that 41% of the employees at a leading restaurant chain reported that having access to medical and behavioral health care at $4 per visit extremely influences their decision to stay with their employer. Economically, these solutions may pencil out better than increasing wages and provide employees with a service they’ll deeply appreciate.
- Promote other forms of health. Physical fitness is associated with better mental health. If you’re going to occasionally buy your team food outside of your own restaurant, consider a nutritious option. Start a meditation or jogging group. Schedule after hours yoga. Maybe task a team member with being the “wellness lead” and have them organize this stuff. Like the other ideas, you’re limited by what’s practical. But any actions you take that promote physical health will have a positive effect on their mind.
The workplace of the future prioritizes employee wellness, both physical and mental. It’ll take some work and perhaps some added investment. But compared to the cost of not doing these things, it’s probably a better way to protect your restaurant’s operational health.
Scott Greenberg is a speaker, writer and business coach and the author of The Wealthy Franchisee: Game-Changing Steps to Becoming a Thriving Franchise Superstar. Find more information at www.scottgreenberg.com.