If company executives were not talking about mental health prior to 2020, the past year has given them several chances to understand the importance of well-being both in and out of work.
HR teams have sought a number of ways to address employees' mental health needs, such as offering access to telehealth-based solutions and implementing cultural changes that support well-being. Not all employers will be able to follow the same playbook, however, particularly those with fewer HR resources such as small businesses.
Those obstacles have not stopped firms like Bethesda, Maryland-based Acquired Data Solutions, an engineering services company with fewer than 30 employees. Its CEO, Steve Seiden, sat down with HR Dive to talk about the approach the company took to establish psychological safety at work amid the pandemic.
Among other initiatives, Acquired Data Solutions earned a corporate mental health certification from mental health organization L.E.A.D. Seiden also discussed the importance of coaching and creating an open space for employees to discuss the challenges they face. Questions and answers been edited for clarity and brevity.
HR DIVE: What do you think it means to be psychologically safe at work, and how does that inform the approach that Acquired Data Solutions took?
Steve Seiden: The ability to be oneself and communicate effectively is ultimately the thing that probably separates people, if that makes sense. And it's very hard to have clear, effective communication, no matter how hard you work at it. Everything can be misinterpreted, from an action to a phrase to an intention. And so bringing awareness to those things, and talking about them, to me, is the first step to creating safety.
It's something we're striving towards, but it's a very difficult thing to be mindful all the time. Even the word mindfulness is a challenging word. One of my goals in life is to try to reduce the amount of carnage that I create. And so, if you think about the boat, when you are driving and your staff is holding onto the boat, you obviously want them to stay on the boat, rather than you driving so fast that you turn around and nobody's left on the boat.
And so, creating that space is something that I think creates that emotional or psychological safety. And bringing in education tools [and] training, or speaking about it, or bringing in mindfulness — doing all of these things — helps your staff know that you really care about them and this topic.
So mainly, it's making sure employees are able to keep up with the pace, right?
Seiden: Keep up with the pace, but even more important than that, I believe it's up to the leader, or the CEO or myself to create the constructs and be working on that stuff. I have a mindfulness coach, and he tells me all the time that if I am working at warp speed, and not working at the speed of everybody else, but at a speed on my own, that nobody can keep up with me.
We all suffer from the same systems. There's nobody that I know that doesn't have some sort of resentment, anxiety or something that they're dealing with. And how do we make that okay? The pandemic has normalized a bunch of things. We've lost two people to death during the pandemic. How do you deal with that in the company? How do you get people to know it's okay?
How do you create funds for your employees? We've implemented a lot of the CARES Act, so that people could feel they had a place to go when they needed extra money because of the pandemic, and they could talk about it.
Aside from the CARES Act, what are some other examples of initiatives you put into place to address psychological safety?
Seiden: We brought in the LEAD group to give some training on A.B.C., which is ask, be aware and connect. Our job is not to be mental health experts — we don't have degrees in it [and it's] above our pay grade. But we can be there in a way that notices something. And so many times we say, “how are you doing?,” and then we say, “fine,” and we leave it at that. So many times we don't ask the next question, or we don't even ask the [first] question. I believe if you ask five questions to anybody, you'll be connected to them in ways you would never imagine, and that everybody has gold that is worth digging for.
We're really trying to concentrate with staff around self-compassion and self-awareness. We talk about self-compassion all the time. I don't believe in self-confidence without self-compassion, because the only way you become confident is by giving yourself enough space to fail.
We are constantly trying to find training, but when you're a small company, training can be expensive, so a lot of it is self-facilitated. We sometimes do meditations before meetings. We talk to people about what their needs are. I'm looking at some services to give coaching and mental health support in some of the programs that are out there right now.
In Bethesda, there's [the IMCW Center for Mindful Living] that gives a lot of programs out that we share. I encourage staff to go on retreats. I think all that is beneficial, and I try to keep up with all this stuff so that I can encourage people.
I encourage people to have a mindfulness coach. I encourage people to go and figure out how to understand that. I think a lot of it starts with just the leader talking about it and bringing that awareness that this is one of our beliefs, our values. My staff knows that self-compassion is a huge value of mine. And trying to get that education into people is very, very important.
Can you talk about how you came to the decision to work with a local organization like the IMCW Center in Bethesda on this issue?
Seiden: What's great about local organizations is they are all virtual, so it's made life so much easier. There are so many resources out there that are virtual now, and I hope they never go back to in-person. I hope so many things never go back to in-person, because I can now meditate with people all over the world and meet people I would never know.
But to your point, what happens is, unless you work for a very large company that spends tons of money on training, or you hit bottom and you have to go find your own resources, it's really hard to get this training for mental health. I am so lucky I live in the D.C. metro area. There are so many free resources or inexpensive resources.
As a CEO, what have you required from your HR team in order to implement this foundation that you've established, especially in the past year?
Seiden: We're a relatively small company under 30 people, and the smaller the company, the less HR you have. And the smaller the company, the more the CEO itself is the HR department. So we're pretty new at the HR game, but we share our values.
Over the last year, we created a value statement. We have values [such as] passion, stretch, grit, loyalty and empowerment, and then how each one of those play into self. At the end of the day, you can't control anybody else, you can only educate them about self-awareness and being and trying for them to shelve the best way they can.
We're starting that now through our HR. We have a separate HR department now for the first time. When you're small, everybody's doing everything. I think the opportunity is, as you grow, and you pay attention to the needs of your staff, you're going to be more mindful around the ability to listen.
HR is a lot about policy and less about listening. And I think there has to be a chief listener at some level in a company. There's a balance in the workplace about being productive, not complaining, doing your job and being efficient, and around what you need to be great. Sometimes they're in conflict, sometimes they're in concert.