The ‘Yin and Yang’ of Mental Health in the Workplace

Yinyang refers to a concept originating in ancient Chinese philosophy where opposite forces are seen as interconnected and counterbalancing. It is commonly represented by the yinyang symbol, a circle made up of black and white swirls, each containing a spot of the other.

I have always believed that it is possible to create a high-quality law firm, which does great work for great clients, delivers value, looks after and empowers its people and where people have fun. To achieve this vision, a holistic approach has to be taken by the firm, which I will address below.  More recently, I have come to the view that an even better way to achieve that vision is to marry together what:

  • the firm should do in a holistic way to create a mentally healthy workplace(the Yin); and
  • people in the firm should do to keep themselves mentally healthy (the Yang)

The Yin – What should a Firm do to create a Mentally Healthy Workplace?

I am a strong believer that organisations and especially law firms have an obligation to create a mentally healthy workplace.  The Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation (TJMF) guidelines provide a fantastic road map to help firms to take a holistic approach in this regard.

Tristan Jepson was a young lawyer who worked in Sydney, suffered from severe depression and ended his life.  His parents set up the TJMF[1] over 10 years ago and developed the TJMF Guidelines for Psychological Best Practice.    

The Guidelines are intended to raise awareness of mental health issues in the workplace and enable leaders of firms to understand the methods of management that assist in the creation and maintenance of a psychologically fit and supportive workplace.  The Guidelines   recommend that firms focus on the following 13 factors:

  1. Organisational culture: there is trust honesty and fairness
  2. Psychological and social support: supported and able to get help when needed
  3. Clear leadership and expectations: they know what to do in their work as well as how their efforts contribute to the overall goals of the organisation.
  4. Civility and respect: they are treated with respect and courtesy 
  5. Psychological competencies and requirements:  they have a good job fit
  6. Growth and development: they are encouraged and supported to develop  personally and professionally
  7. Recognition and reward:  they are acknowledged appropriately in a timely manner and appreciated appropriately for the work they do
  8. Good involvement and influence by staff:  they are included in discussions about their work and are able to participate in how decisions are made.
  9. Workload management: they are given the time and resources necessary to complete their work successfully
  10. Engagement : their work is meaningful
  11. Balance: they have choices and opportunities for flexible working arrangements to accommodate their work, family and personal priorities.
  12. Psychological protection:  it is safe to speak up and that appropriate action will be taken and protection provided
  13. Protection of physical safety:  their physical safety is protected

Whilst all the major law firms in Australia and many other professional services firms became signatories to the TJMF Guidelines, I don’t think that many have actually put in place all of the things that need to be done to create mentally healthy workplaces.

When you boil it down, creating a psychologically and fit workplace is really about developing and living by a set of values which in turn ensure people are treated fairly and with respect. 

What I tried to do in my 12 years as a law firm leader was to take a holistic, values-based approach to law firm management which included compassionate leadership, developing and living values which leads to empowering and trusting everyone in the firm to be the best they could be, embedding flexible working arrangements, driving for diversity and inclusion, delivering value to clients, communicating openly and honestly and giving back to the community.  

I deal with each of these briefly below.

Leadership and Flow of Success Model

Leadership is critical.  The culture of a firm starts from the top and a firm can only have a culture of being a mentally healthy workplace if that is the vision of and aligns with the purpose, mission and values of the firm’s leader, so leadership becomes very relevant to creating the right culture.

So if leadership is critical in respect to creating a successful firm that is also a mentally healthy place to work, what then is that type of leadership?

In my view a leader is someone who:

  • is highly aware of his or her own emotions
  • uses positive energy and compassion
  • to inspire, empower and motivate others
  • to be the best that they can be
  • in an ethical way; and
  • in accordance with the relevant strategic direction the firm is seeking to go.

A leader then has to be relentless and unstoppable in implementation.

Over my period as a law firm leader I developed what I call the ‘Flow of Success’.

The model has four simple elements (or areas of focus) and puts ‘people first’ and it is all about doing everything you can to have the right people of the right cultural fit on the right seats on the bus and then empowering them to be the best that they can be in an ethical way in accordance with our strategic direction. If that happens then the bus will find its way.  

The second element is around clients with the nub being building relationships of trust through communication and delivering value.  

The third element is about organizational wellbeing. It’s about having the best governance, systems and processes in place.  

The last element is about finances (profit). It comes last on the basis  that if you get the first three right, the last one will look after itself. Most professional service firms would turn this model on its head with every decision being made around the finances.  Trust me, it works!

Values

In my experience, if a firm develops values with input from everyone and embeds those values into everything it does (including remuneration, progression and induction of new people) then the firm can be run on an ‘empowerment and trust’ model, rather than a ‘command and control’ model.  The values and the behaviors that are required to live the values will result in people in the firm self-regulating, rather than being told what to do.

Of course, this means that people who do not comply with the values should be dealt with swiftly. There is no point having values if, say, your best performer pays no regard to them.  

Values are not something that can just be delivered from the top. From my experience, they need to develop from a bottom-up and top-down approach with a significant amount of consultation.

Flexible work arrangements and work-life balance

I believe that having truly flexible work arrangements available for all people in a firm is one of the biggest contributors to developing a mentally healthy workplace.  In 2010, when I was the Managing Partner of Minter Ellison Perth, we won the  2009-10 National Work-Life Balance Awards for our flexible work arrangements policies and track record in making it happen. Below is a summary of the ‘Road Map’ we developed in this regard.

ROAD MAP

WORK-LIFE BALANCE (WLB)  STRATEGY

The Centre for Work + Life, University of South Australia, included our story in their “Doing things differently: Case Studies of Work-Life Innovation in 6 Australian Workplaces” (March 2011).

View it here

Diversity and Inclusion

The evidence speaks for itself – and so does the everyday experience of businesses across the world. Diversity and inclusion lead to more innovation, more opportunities for all, better access to talent, better culture,  better business performance and a more mentally healthy workplace. I think there are five reasons why diversity and inclusion are an absolute imperative for any business.

  1. Diversity and inclusion are quite simply the right thing to do
  2. It’s good for business
  3. If firms don’t manage diversity properly, they’ll get left behind
  4. Diversity plugs the talent gap for businesses – and is also good for society
  5. Diversity and inclusion bring us all opportunities to learn from others and grow

Communicating Openly and Honestly

Open and honest communication is a concept that almost all organisations claim to value, but very few truly achieve. The importance of an open business environment cannot be overstated; a company can survive without open communication, but very few organisations thrive without it.

Trust is key to a mentally healthy workplace and open and honest communication is a must if you want to build trust.  All high-performing teams, whether in the sports arena or in the business world, are built on a solid foundation of trust. Trust grows over time and is based on individual members of a team making and keeping commitments, as well as being vulnerable with one another. These honored commitments are noticed by other team members, making them feel less vulnerable, which in turn opens the door to stronger relationships. Relationships are then built upon through continued open, honest communication.

Community investment

People want to be part of an organisation that is involved in the community and gives them meaning.  It helps with recruitment and retention.  It nourishes people.  In its best form, it is where your people give their skills (not money) to community.

So if you want to build a mentally healthy workplace, developing a culture of giving back to the community is a must.  Find a focus that aligns with the firm’s vision and values and stick with it.  Make it part of what people do every day.

Taking a holistic approach to wellbeing of people does lead to great results. I’m really proud of what we achieved during my time of leading law firms.  It resulted in increased engagement, decrease in turnover and significant growth in revenue and profit.  From 2006 to 2018 the firm I led was one of the fasted growing law firms in Australia with revenue increasing by over 260% in that period.

The Yang – What should people in the firm do to keep themselves mentally healthy?

Understanding Ikigai

People need to find Ikigai in their work.

The term Ikigai is composed of two Japanese words: iki referring to life, and kai, which roughly means “the realisation of what one expects and hopes for”. Unpacking the word and its associated symbol a bit further, ikigai is seen as the convergence of four primary elements:

  • What you Love (your passion)
  • What the World Needs (your mission)
  • What you are Good at (your vocation)
  • What you can get Paid for (your profession)

The word ikigai, that space in the middle of these four elements, is seen as the source of value or what make one’s life truly worthwhile. In  Japan, ikigai is thought of as “a reason to get up in the morning”.

I think IKIGAI is a great model to apply to yourself and your working life. I have added one more circle Which is all about ‘being supported to grow’.

So, ask yourself – do I get Ikigai in my current role?

If not then ask yourself, what can I do to get it? Or am I in the right role  in the right organisation?

This leads on to my next thought.  As I have grown older, I have formed the view that we live much of our life in fear  – fear of what has happened (leads to depression) and fear of what might happen (leads to anxiety), rather than living in the present and having inner peace.

Remaining calm under pressure

The ability to manage your emotions and remain calm under pressure has a direct link to your performance. Research undertaken by Yale with more than a million people, has found that 90% of top performers are skilled at managing their emotions in times of stress in order to remain calm and in control.

The Yale study, which found that prolonged stress causes degeneration in the area of the brain responsible for self-control. The tricky thing about stress (and the anxiety that comes with it) is that it’s an absolutely necessary emotion. Our brains are wired such that it’s difficult to take action until we feel at least some level of this emotional state. In fact, performance peaks under the heightened activation that comes with moderate levels of stress. As long as the stress isn’t prolonged, it’s harmless.

New research from the University of California, Berkeley, reveals an upside to experiencing moderate levels of stress. But it also reinforces how important it is to keep stress under control. The study, led by post-doctoral fellow Elizabeth Kirby, found that the onset of stress entices the brain into growing new cells responsible for improved memory. However, this effect is only seen when stress is intermittent. As soon as the stress continues beyond a few moments into a prolonged state, it suppresses the brain’s ability to develop new cells.

Besides increasing your risk of heart disease, depression, and obesity, stress decreases your cognitive performance. Fortunately, though, unless a lion is chasing you, the bulk of your stress is subjective and under your control. Top performers have well-honed coping strategies that they employ under stressful circumstances. This lowers their stress levels regardless of what’s happening in their environment, ensuring that the stress they experience is intermittent and not prolonged.

12 things you can do to keep yourself mentally healthy under pressure

While I’ve run across numerous effective strategies that successful people employ when faced with stress, what follows are what I think are 12 of the best. Some of these strategies may seem obvious, but the real challenge lies in recognizing when you need to use them and having the wherewithal to actually do so in spite of your stress.

  1. They Appreciate What They Have – Taking time to contemplate what you’re grateful for isn’t merely the “right” thing to do. It also improves your mood, because it reduces the stress hormone cortisol by 23%. Research conducted at the University of California, Davis found that people who worked daily to cultivate an attitude of gratitude experienced improved mood, energy, and physical well-being. It’s likely that lower levels of cortisol played a major role in this.

     

  2. They Avoid Asking “What If?” – “What if?” statements throw fuel on the fire of stress and worry. Things can go in a million different directions, and the more time you spend worrying about the possibilities, the less time you’ll spend focusing on taking action that will calm you down and keep your stress under control. Calm people know that asking “what if? will only take them to a place they don’t want—or need—to go.

     

  3. They Stay Positive – Positive thoughts help make stress intermittent by focusing your brain’s attention onto something that is completely stress-free. You have to give your wandering brain a little help by consciously selecting something positive to think about. Any positive thought will do to refocus your attention.

    When things are going well, and your mood is good, this is relatively easy. When things are going poorly, and your mind is flooded with negative thoughts, this can be a challenge. In these moments, think about your day and identify one positive thing that happened, no matter how small.

    If you can’t think of something from the current day, reflect on the previous day or even the previous week. Or perhaps you’re looking forward to an exciting event that you can focus your attention on. The point here is that you must have something positive that you’re ready to shift your attention to when your thoughts turn negative.

  1. They Disconnect – Given the importance of keeping stress intermittent, it’s easy to see how taking regular time off the grid can help keep your stress under control. When you make yourself available to your work 24/7, you expose yourself to a constant barrage of stressors. Forcing yourself offline and even—gulp!—turning off your phone gives your body a break from a constant source of stress. Studies have shown that something as simple as an email break can lower stress levels.            

    Technology enables constant communication and the expectation that you should be available 24/7. It is extremely difficult to enjoy a stress-free moment outside of work when an email that will change your train of thought and get you thinking (read: stressing) about work can drop onto your phone at any moment.

    If detaching yourself from work-related communication on weekday evenings is too big a challenge, then how about the weekend? Choose blocks of time where you cut the cord and go offline. 

    You’ll be amazed at how refreshing these breaks are and how they reduce stress by putting a mental recharge into your weekly schedule. 

    If you’re worried about the negative repercussions of taking this step, first try doing it at times when you’re unlikely to be contacted—maybe Sunday morning. As you grow more comfortable with it, and as your co-workers begin to accept the time you spend offline, gradually expand the amount of time you spend away from technology.

  1. They Limit Their Caffeine Intake – Drinking caffeine triggers the release of adrenaline. Adrenaline is the source of the “fight-or-flight” response, a survival mechanism that forces you to stand up and fight or run for the hills when faced with a threat. The fight-or-flight mechanism sidesteps rational thinking in favour of a faster response. This is great when a bear is chasing you, but not so great when you’re responding to a curt email. When caffeine puts your brain and body into this hyper aroused state of stress, your emotions overrun your behaviour. The stress that caffeine creates is far from intermittent, as its long half-life ensures that it takes its sweet time working its way out of your body.

     

  2. They Sleep – I can’t say enough about the importance of sleep to increase your emotional intelligence and manage your stress levels. 

    When you sleep, your brain literally recharges, shuffling through the day’s memories and storing or discarding them (which causes dreams), so that you wake up alert and clear-headed.

    Your self-control, attention, and memory are all reduced when you don’t get enough—or the right kind—of sleep. Sleep deprivation raises stress hormone levels on its own, even without a stressor present. Stressful projects often make you feel as if you have no time to sleep but taking the time to get a decent night’s sleep is often the one thing keeping you from getting things under control.

  1. They Squash Negative Self-Talk – A big step in managing stress involves stopping negative self-talk in its tracks. The more you ruminate on negative thoughts, the more power you give them. Most of our negative thoughts are just that—thoughts, not facts. When you find yourself believing the negative and pessimistic things, your inner voice says, “It’s time to stop and write them down.” Literally stop what you’re doing and write down what you’re thinking. Once you’ve taken a moment to slow down the negative momentum of your thoughts, you will be more rational and clear-headed in evaluating their veracity.

    You can bet that your statements aren’t true any time you use words like “never,” “worst,” “ever,” etc. If your statements still look like facts once they’re on paper, take them to a friend or colleague you trust and see if he or she agrees with you. Then the truth will surely come out. When it feels like something always or never happens, this is just your brain’s natural threat tendency inflating the perceived frequency or severity of an event. Identifying and labelling your thoughts as thoughts by separating them from the facts will help you escape the cycle of negativity and move toward a positive new outlook.

  1. They Reframe Their Perspective – Stress and worry are fuelled by our own skewed perception of events. It’s easy to think that unrealistic deadlines, unforgiving bosses, and out-of-control traffic are the reasons we’re so stressed all the time. You can’t control your circumstances, but you can control how you respond to them. So, before you spend too much time dwelling on something, take a minute to put the situation in perspective. If you aren’t sure when you need to do this, try looking for clues that your anxiety may not be proportional to the stressor. If you’re thinking in broad, sweeping statements such as “Everything is going wrong” or “Nothing will work out,” then you need to reframe the situation. A great way to correct this unproductive thought pattern is to list the specific things that actually are going wrong or not working out. Most likely you will come up with just some things—not everything—and the scope of these stressors will look much more limited than it initially appeared.
  1. They Breathe – The easiest way to make stress intermittent lies in something that you have to do every day anyway: breathing. 

    The practice of being in the moment with your breathing will begin to train your brain to focus solely on the task at hand and get the stress monkey off your back.

    When you’re feeling stressed, take a couple of minutes to focus on your breathing. Close the door, put away all other distractions, and just sit in a chair and breathe. The goal is to spend the entire time focused only on your breathing, which will prevent your mind from wandering.

  1. They meditate – The science of meditation is now indisputable.  It gives us a better grasp of how to work with situations, a heightened awareness of our emotions, and more space to respond.

    Meditation is a simple technique that, if practiced for as few as 10 minutes each day, can help you control stress, decrease anxiety, improve cardiovascular health, and achieve a greater capacity for relaxation.

    When our bodies are exposed to a sudden stress or threat, we respond with a characteristic “fight or flight” response. The ”adrenaline rush” we experience is a result of the release of the hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine. They cause an increase in blood pressure and pulse rate, faster breathing, and increased blood flow to the muscles.

    The relaxation response is a technique designed to elicit the opposite bodily reaction from the “fight or flight” response — a state of deep relaxation in which our breathing, pulse rate, blood pressure, and metabolism are decreased. Training our bodies on a daily basis to achieve this state of relaxation can lead to enhanced mood, lower blood pressure, improved digestion, and a reduction of everyday stress.

  1. They Use Their Support System – It’s tempting, yet entirely ineffective, to attempt tackling everything by yourself. To be calm and productive, you need to recognize your weaknesses and ask for help when you need it. 

    This means tapping into your support system when a situation is challenging enough for you to feel overwhelmed. Everyone has someone at work and/or outside work who is on their team, rooting for them, and ready to help them get the best from a difficult situation.

    Identify these individuals in your life and make an effort to seek their insight and assistance when you need it. Something as simple as talking about your worries will provide an outlet for your anxiety and stress and supply you with a new perspective on the situation. Most of the time, other people can see a solution that you can’t because they are not as emotionally invested in the situation. Asking for help will mitigate your stress and strengthen your relationships with those you rely upon.

  1. Exercise – reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators.

    Virtually any form of exercise, from aerobics to yoga, can act as a stress reliever. If you’re not an athlete or even if you’re out of shape, you can still make a little exercise go a long way toward stress management.

Concluding Comments

So, my thinking is that mental health in the workplace is all about getting the interconnected Yin and Yang in balance.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Poulsen

John Poulsen

John Poulsen

John Poulsen

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