Protecting Your Mental Health at Work

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Wharton’s Stephanie Creary speaks with organizational behavior researcher Tiffany Johnson and psychologist Hammad S. N’cho about workplace well-being.

Unhappy employees often describe their workplace as a toxic environment rife with distrust, low morale, negativity, and burnout. But organizational and behavioral health experts have a different word for workplaces that are harmful enough to affect mental and physical health — traumatic.

As many Americans head back into the office this fall, businesses can help mitigate that effect by adopting a “trauma-informed management strategy” that recognizes the extraordinary stresses of the last 18 months, said Hammad S. N’cho, a licensed psychologist who specializes in front-line trauma response.

A bespoke strategy is especially important for people of color, who have been more adversely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the heightened tensions around racial and social justice.

“Wide variation in employee experiences, perceptions, and expectations makes it basically impossible to design a one-size-fits-all policy,” said N’cho, executive director of the N’cho Behavioral Group. “In order to contend with these variations, companies should incorporate a trauma-informed management strategy that encourages leading with flexibility, facilitating open, honest, two-way communication between staff and leadership, and most importantly, promoting post-traumatic growth.”

N’cho joined Wharton management professor Stephanie Creary during an episode of her Leading Diversity at Work podcast series to discuss how companies can champion mental health and well-being in the aftermath of traumatic events. Tiffany Johnson, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business and founder of the nonprofit Institute for Good Work, also joined the conversation. (Listen to the podcast above. You can find more episodes here.)

“Wide variation in employee experiences, perceptions, and expectations makes it basically impossible to design a one-size-fits-all policy.” –Hammad S. N’cho

Johnson said she’s been talking to her students a lot lately about the need for businesses to normalize the discussion around trauma in order to recognize and respond to it. Workplaces can actually compound trauma for minorities by not recognizing their unique struggles, she noted. That’s partly why so many employees are reluctant to leave the comfort and safety of their homes to go back into the office.

“Professional identity is connected to feeling adequate and being satisfied with one’s work, with one’s role, and how one is enacting one’s role. But when trauma has been happening, and when multiple forms and multiple layers of trauma have been happening, we have distrust, helplessness, destabilization,” she said. “Of course, this is going to be heightened for folks who are not only experiencing the trauma from the pandemic but also have in their bodies — and some might argue, across generations — been experiencing racial trauma, as well.”

The Weight of Generational Trauma

Johnson and N’cho spoke about the effect of generational trauma for Black and Brown people. A younger Black employee, for example, who didn’t live through segregation or the civil rights era, still carries the weight of ancestral experience and still deals with daily microaggressions, if not outright discrimination.

“The individual who shows up at work is not the individual alone,” N’cho said. “That individual is also representative of, a reflection of, those who have come before, or those whose shoulders they’re standing upon. So, what does that mean when those shoulders that you’re standing upon have experienced extreme trauma or have encountered great trauma?”

Even something as innocuous as a hairstyle can become a lightning rod for discrimination, with some workplaces deciding that coiled, textured, or curly hair is less acceptable than straight hair. Johnson and Creary related their experiences as Black women who wear their hair in a natural style, not chemically relaxed or straightened to alter the texture.

“It’s this idea that the focus becomes on your hair, whether it’s professional or not, in addition to me just trying to do my job,” Creary said.

Johnson added that when she decided to go natural about 12 years ago, people close to her worried about whether she would be hired.

“I think that it is such an important part of us being able to make the choice to show up as we want to, either with chemically processed hair or without chemically processed hair, [without it] weighing into the decision of whether or not we are a valuable employee or a potentially valuable employee,” she said.

“Just because they’re a therapist doesn’t mean that they’re the best one for you.” –Tiffany Johnson

Strategies for Well-being

Creary asked the experts for guidance on how employees can safeguard their own mental health as they work through challenging times. Both N’cho and Johnson strongly advocated for therapy as a safe space to share burdens and learn healthy coping strategies. They also said that it’s important for people of color to find a therapist with cultural competency.

“Choose a psychologist that you feel you can be safe with as culturally competent, who understands your professional background, your racial and ethnic complexities in a way that can really guide you and not induce more shame,” Johnson said. “Just because they’re a therapist doesn’t mean that they’re the best one for you.”

For those who cannot afford private counseling, take advantage of employee assistance programs or other low-cost methods of therapy. That includes self-care therapies such as yoga, meditation, and other mind-body connections. And don’t forget to tap into communities of support, including peer support groups both inside and outside of work, and institutions of faith.

Employees also would do well to set boundaries and learn to advocate for themselves, the experts said. Speaking candidly can help their managers better understand what is needed to help their employees stay happy, healthy, and productive.

“Post-traumatic growth is positive change that results from struggle with challenging circumstances,” N’cho said. “When it comes to return-to-the-office policy, post-traumatic growth asks, ‘What can we learn from this period of staff working at home that will improve overall efficiency, and that we can implement within our corporate policy moving forward?’”

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