Building A Mental Health Plan for Your Business

By Barbara J. Bowes

I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s been a challenging few months. First, we encountered school and large-format store closures, workplaces suddenly shifting their employees to work at home, and the general population was directed to hunker down indoors. Then, as the restrictions started lifting, we saw retailers, including our members, struggling to follow public health mandates for social distancing and sanitizing. And although we are deemed essential services, we still experienced customers that were confused about protocols while others were downright indignant about having to follow health safety rules. All of this happening at the same time that our owners needed to take steps to protect their own workers both from potential health risks.

In other words, stress has been a typical response for everyone all around. Thousands of people have been thrown out of work with no opportunity for other jobs due to COVID19 shutdowns. They are more than stressed. And, while several provinces bubbled with glee as alcohol sales and profitability soared to new heights, the Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health reports that people are binge drinking at least once per week to overcome their stress. And finally, domestic abuse calls have also increased.

Let’s face it; everyone has been scared, angry, and confused as they hang onto every word and watch the new death and illness statistic streaming across the daily news channels. Everyone is thinking, “Where are we going with this pandemic, and how can I survive my economic crisis?” All of these responses, although typical, are inclusive of what we now know are mental health issues. These are your customers!

And, all the while, essential service businesses have been open for business! So, no matter which way you look at it, every customer coming through the door has and is more than likely experiencing stress, extreme or otherwise. What does this mean for your employees? It means that employees have to deal with their own as well as their customer’s stress. And being able to manage this challenge will impact how they deal with customers.

Believe me; this stress is real. For instance, a young female convenience store clerk alerted to some of the stress and mental health issues she was personally experiencing. For example, with foot traffic in the first few months being so slow, she spent a lot of time reading Harlequin romance novels and worrying about being laid off. She felt isolated and vulnerable.

Then, once customer traffic started moving, the next challenge was having to deal with the occasional angry customer that resented having to follow the basic public health protocols. And, to top all this off, public health announcements on the spread of the virus left them in fear of catching the virus from their incoming customers, especially if the customer was not wearing a mask.

At the same time, a business owner overseeing a convenience store, gas bar, and a quick food outlet shared with me that he was extremely stressed. Not only with trying to meet all the public health requirements but all the while trying to locate the supplies that would allow him to meet the stated health and safety requirements. While earlier on in the pandemic, toilet paper was the first widespread shortage reported, the availability of cleaning supplies and plexiglass for business owners was the recent big problem. The stress of upgrading protocols to meet standards and the stress of stressed-out customers only results in more stress…in other words, mental health issues.

Mental health is not something most managers are trained to recognize, not to mention ability to appropriately handle. Not only that, but mental health also is not something employees want to talk about because it’s still a taboo topic. So, what can managers do? The following suggestions will help you to recognize and put a plan in place to help deal with stress in your business.

  • RESPECT YOUR STRESS TOO – as a leader you will go a long way to gaining more respect with employees if you can recognize and acknowledge your own stress and be prepared to talk about it. You don’t need to share a lot of details, but when employees know they are not alone, it will go a long way to calming the turbulent waters. Of course, it will matter a great deal for employees to see the business owner handling their stress effectively. Work on your own solutions and share your strategies.
  • REAFFIRM PROTOCOLS – meet with employees to discuss service protocols and demonstrate how you want employees to respond to customers that are extremely emotional, either saddened, angry or frustrated. Create standard statements that can be repeated to calm customers down. Ensure employees know when to reach out for help and where to get that help.
  • KNOW YOUR STRESSORS – every business has a list of typical issues that create stress in the work-place. Identify what these are and seek out ways to mitigate them. This could be things such as stock delivery times, cleaning requirements, staffing workload and opening/closing procedures. Establish standardized processes and protocols to help reduce potential stress.
  • MONITOR BEHAVIOUR – mental health signs are typically very subtle, at least at first. Watch for absenteeism, last minute cancelling of a shift without a good excuse, or arriving at work tired or hung over. Watch for signs of depression, tiredness, bad moods, aggressive language and/or customer conflict. Keep an eye out for a general lack of productivity and signs of anxiety such as difficulty concentrating and forgetting instructions.
  • HELP AWARENESS – smaller organizations without a number of other colleagues to help each other can access many of the available help lines for advice on how to handle personal stress. These are sometimes offered by various provinces and/or the employee health benefit program. Meet with employees and inform them as to what resources are available and encourage individuals to access these confidential resources.
  • EDUCATE EMPLOYEES – there are plenty of online resources and webcasts that employers can use as brief luncheon or coffee break training sessions. Schedule employees to view a series of these brief self-help vignettes. Look for programs on work-life balance, stress, mental health, personal positivity, and dealing with difficult customers. Continue to discuss mental health during morning or shift change huddle meetings.

Most small businesses are well aware of general workplace health and safety issues but rarely has this focused on mental health. Yet, mental health can have a bit hit on small businesses. Absenteeism, poor customer service, low productivity, interpersonal conflict, depression and a long list of other mostly invisible symptoms can literally cripple a small business owner for brief periods of time. Therefore, accept that mental health is a real issue that needs real solutions and begin to build a plan for yourself and your employees.

Barbara J. Bowes, FCPHR, CCP, M.Ed., of the consulting firm Legacy Bowes, is the author of eight books, a radio personality, a speaker, an executive coach and workshop leader. She is also chairwoman of the Manitoba Status of Women. She can be reached at barb@legacybowes.com