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How to develop a positive mental health culture as a product leader

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We’re in the midst of a mental health crisis. One in four people experience poor mental health  – ranging from mild to severe – in the UK alone, according to The Health Foundation. In addition, one in seven or 14% experience mental health problems in the workplace.

How then can product leaders develop a culture which promotes positive mental health t…

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We’re in the midst of a mental health crisis. One in four people experience poor mental health  - ranging from mild to severe - in the UK alone, according to The Health Foundation. In addition, one in seven or 14% experience mental health problems in the workplace. How then can product leaders develop a culture which promotes positive mental health to ensure that their teams are supported and perform at their best? We spoke with Nicholas Jemetta, Product Consultant and mental health speaker to find out.  Key points:
  • Creating cultures in which people can thrive (and which attract the best talent) means teams have the right environment to be healthy and happy.
  • Product leaders need to recognise their teams are made up of unique people. Supporting such diverse wellbeing needs means taking a long-term, holistic approach.
  • Proactive preventative interventions and signposting are key ways to create a healthy working environment.

What a healthy working environment looks like

A healthy working environment has several key attributes. Nick believes that treating product people like humans in a digital world should be at the forefront of developing this healthy environment. “The pandemic has helped us see the humanity in people, but with an increase of engagement through video calls, it can feel robotic at times,” he says. Remembering that there is another human on the other side of the call is a good place to start. Role-modelling and creating a safe space for people to speak out about their issues go hand-in-hand. “Employees need to see product leaders being open and honest about their mental health. Over time, they can showcase that it’s safe to do so without impacting their careers,” he says. With this safe space, product leaders can also celebrate individuality and diversity. Doing so can once again encourage teams to be open about their feelings at work. Organisations need to train their line managers so they are prepared to do the above, Nick believes. This means that they will be better equipped to address mental health concerns in their teams and know what benefits to offer. A healthy workplace isn’t one that tries to act like the medical profession. Instead, it's a place that can signpost effectively to the most relevant professional support. 

Why existing ways of supporting employees’ mental health are no longer enough

Supporting mental health can no longer be a ‘tick-box’ exercise, Nick explains. Often the wellbeing strategies used by a business will fail to engage people, he adds. “It's important to recognise that being a product manager is quite an intense role. There is a balance to strike between sustainable value creation, whilst recognising that the pace at which you create great digital products has to be manageable for people.” So what does that mean in practice? It means asking questions like:
  • Are your product teams properly resourced?
  • Are you putting too much pressure on individuals?
  • How does your product prioritisation process work?
  • How well does your product team work together internally and externally?
While a company-wide employee assistance programme is a good starting point, it’s also important for product leaders to answer these questions and support specific teams further. One size doesn’t fit all. “Like the diverse users of any digital product, product leaders need to recognise their teams are made up of unique people, each with their own motivations, needs and ambitions,” Nick adds. Supporting these wellbeing needs means taking a long-term, personalised approach. Product leaders should be proactive and engage with HR/wellbeing teams or specialists to learn more about developing a positive mental health culture for the product organisation, Nick believes. Spark conversations with HR leaders. Doing so can develop key connections further down the line to support your team members, and to help them thrive.

Practical steps you can take to implement on-demand mental health support for teams

The pandemic has changed the way that people work. Back-to-back video calls and working in isolation for months have and will continue to have an impact on the working lives of product people. Nick offers a practical checklist for product leaders to implement on-demand mental health support:
  • Think about it like you would a product: start small, fail fast and take a now/next/later approach
  • Engage and align with your wellbeing/HR colleagues (where they exist)
  • Have clear HR policies and procedures in place, with adequate signposting and support
  • Train individuals and line managers to be more confident in talking about mental health
  • Remember that positive leadership role modelling will create psychological safety
  • Make mental health a part of the conversation every day. Don't only talk about it on World Mental Health Day (checking in with teams, listening and seeking to understand)
  • Inspire and educate individuals to take responsibility for their own wellbeing
  • Consider if wellbeing champions or Mental Health First Aiders (MHFA) should form part of your overall strategy
  • Consider if technology-enabled solutions complement the other components of your strategy
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