Recent studies show a dwindling percentage of employee engagement in the workplace. One of the main causes is burnout. People’s mental health has taken a toll, especially during the pandemic. Now more than ever, it is important to have conversations on what we need to change in the workplace. In this episode, Marie-Helene Pelletier joins Penny Zenker to share with us her insights on psychology and mental health in our working environment. She is an award-winning Leadership and Workplace Mental Health Expert, Psychologist, Advisor, and Speaker. She brings her expertise to discuss stress as an epidemic, quiet quitting, and compassion fatigue. Offering advice to overcome these challenges, Marie then discusses the importance of having a resilience plan. Tune in to this conversation to discover more insights on improving mental health in the workplace.
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Wellness In The Workplace: A Resilience Plan For Mental Health With Marie-Helene Pelletier
I’m excited to talk about psychology and mental health in the workplace. It’s a big topic right now, and we are going to cover it with Dr. Marie-Helene Pelletier. She is an award-winning leadership and workplace mental health expert, psychologist, advisor, and speaker. As one of a handful of work psychologists holding both a PhD and an MBA, it gives her both that balance. She brings a mix of business and clinical expertise to her talk and to her work.
She has led mental health strategy in senior leadership positions for organizations such as Sun Life Financial, a Global 500 company. She’s also been on the boards of Canadian Psychological Association and the International Association of Applied Psychology. She is an active member of the Global Clinical Practice Network of the World Health Organization. She’s going to show us that she possesses a unique ability to translate psychology research about health, performance, and resiliency into strategies that professionals, leaders, and teams need to thrive. We need to talk about this now. This is so important. Welcome.
Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here, Penny.
I don’t even know where to start. First of all, what makes you interested in both psychology and the workplace? What brings that unique blend together for you?
I got there by, you know how early career sometimes evolves? It brings you in different roles. In my case, a couple of decades ago, being able to be a psychologist in the context of workplace and employee and family assistance programs, for example, was such an opportunity for me to see how sometimes a little bit of information could make a huge difference in the outcome, in how people feel, think, and the choices they make. That’s how that started. Then things evolved from there.
When I considered my research, I did the research in telehealth many years ago. Now, it’s very mainstream, but at the time it wasn’t, which was also to decrease the challenges with access that people had. In order to do that research, I needed to do a lot of management of money, funding, and people, which then led to my business training.
At the end of all this, I ended up doing management in workplace mental health, so being a leader myself in these types of situations, and things evolved from there from insurance carriers, other employee and family assistance programs, public and private sector, and then now having my own business where I do the speaking. I’m a retainer with individuals and organizations to support their resilience and workplace mental health. I also still work a little bit as a psychologist.
It sounds like you’ve got a lot going on.
It’s all things I love, so it’s good.
This is so important to talk about now. They’re talking about that engagement has slipped years ago. Gallup had said we were only 30% engaged, and now the most recent figures were only 18%, then burnout is at an all-time high. I’d like your take on what is the cause and what needs to change? I know that’s a lot of questions in one, but let’s start with what’s going on really from your perspective?
The burnout rates were fairly high even before the pandemic. We know that not just burnout, but impact on our overall psychological health and resilience have been there because of the pandemic. For example, a recent Canadian data, but we know it’s aligned with what other countries are seeing, shows that there has been an increase of 75% in mental health disability claims from pre-pandemic. It is illustrating that there has been an impact of pandemic, and there were also challenges pre-pandemic. In terms of what is the cause, there is probably a multitude of causes.
If we look at where we’re at now, certainly for some people going through the past couple of years it has been okay. It’s not been extremely challenging. For some people, it has been extremely challenging. For everyone, it has had an impact. That’s the one piece to keep in mind, not in a terrible thing way, but in acknowledging it. If we acknowledge it, then it’s better for us. We may take better actions. It’s better also for us as members of teams, leaders of teams, so that we can be a bit more compassionate, not only for ourselves, which we need to, and others as well.
Let me stop you for a second there. Let me jump in because I want to make sure people who are reading, especially those leaders that are out there, this is not new to the pandemic. You’re on the board of the World Health Organization. They declared stress a worldwide epidemic before the pandemic. I do think that what you said there was really important that we check in and understand that things have amplified. As you said, everybody’s impacted, but that we had a problem before. Something is broken. It’s probably partially the management aspect of things. It feels like we haven’t gotten it right yet.
Many of these variables and the overall equation of psychological health and resilience, they change. You may be at a moment in time with a certain type of leader, but given your context and other demands in your life, things work out perfectly fine at that moment in time. You would have this similar experience at a different moment in time whether from what they bring or from what you bring. For all kinds of reasons, it doesn’t work as well.
There is one part of this direction that is actually helping, and that is we are talking more about it. It’s not just in the, “Let’s talk more about mental health. Decrease the stigma.” It’s still true. The stigma is less than what it was. It’s still there, so we need to continue to work on it. The level of conversation was already higher pre-pandemic than five years ago. Even now, it is higher as well. What comes with conversation, it’s part of the stigma, but it’s the literacy, the understanding of what’s going on when someone has challenges in the workplace. What happens when someone goes through a burnout? In an episode of burnout for example, we often describe it as a relationship between us, the employee and the employer, or the employment situation, a breakup in that relationship.
Like in relationships, there are things we can do proactively that are likely to protect us. The more we have literacy information, and everyone has information, we are going to be better as collaborators and contributors and as leaders. Our overall leaders will also be better, and overall we will move in a better direction.
We’re having that discussion, and that’s making it more discussion, making us more aware when we recognize the symptoms and being able to proactively engage with that. That’s good. That’s an important shift. The big term right now that everybody is talking about is this quiet quitting. Is that a mental health issue in terms of people shutting down? Is it a positive mental health thing where they’re actually setting boundaries for themselves and caring for their wellness? What do you see about that?
It’s a term that has grabbed attention. I think it is a way to continue the conversation in itself. Quiet quitting is not something that’s new. Many people before have decided to rethink how they want to approach their work. It’s a word that has allowed more conversation now. If we assume that quiet quitting refers to looking at how you’ve been handling work, and let’s say you’ve been giving it all you’ve got, all the minutes of all your days and nights, and that now refers to deciding, “What part of my life do I want to put in work? What part of my life is not work?” Personal life, time with family and friends, exercise, whatever it is, then that may be just a healthy boundary.
It depends. That’s what I hear. You talked about literacy. It’s important that we have language and that we can discuss it, but at the same time, I feel like that’s a harmful label. I feel like sometimes we create these labels and then we bucket everybody in and handle them as quiet quitters, versus these people are setting balance for themselves, and these people are really fed up with being treated unfairly. How do you suggest that leaders deal with that in the sense of mental health and addressing where there are positive aspects of it and not so great aspects?
I think I would let go of the label, actually. I would not use it. Instead, I would try to learn from each person’s experience and what is going on for you. You could have someone that labels themselves or has been labeled by others as a quiet quitter. It may be someone who is disengaged, who does not find whatever meaning they use to find or they’re ready for their next role, whether it’s a different role or whatever. They’re ready for their next challenge. That could be that.
It could also be someone that used to do things differently, and now their personal context has changed such that they need to revisit how they use their time and where they put their energy and how. It may be fabulous for everyone, including the employer, that this individual is deciding to do things a bit differently. It could be healthier. Supporting them in the long range, supporting the organization in the long range. I would go instead with, “What’s your experience? How are you feeling, thinking, what are your needs?” Then we can go from there and have a more specific, more honest, more compassionate conversation because now we understand what this means for this individual.
Keep it individualized, then let’s stay away from those labels.
Plus, it’s not an official label anyway. It’s not a diagnostic. It’s just a term.
They are right there throwing around like it is a diagnostic. That’s why I wanted to bring that up because I think it’s problematic.
I think it’s true for many other people and many experiences. Let’s say someone could be going through a depression. As an employer or a leader of a team, if someone comes forward and says, “I was off for a period of time,” and they’re choosing to tell us why they were off and that kind of thing, I would still not go with, “Okay. This is the label and therefore everyone who’s gone through this experience,” no, because their context will be different. You’d still want to go with, “Given this, what does that mean for you? Do you need anything from us at this point? Are you okay? You just let us know.” It depends.
Have you seen leaders struggling because there’s probably a lot more individual attention that is needed? Do you find them being overwhelmed because they don’t have the time to connect with so many individuals? Is that something that you’re seeing?
Sometimes overwhelmed, sometimes also just fatigued. Sometimes they have made the time, especially earlier in the pandemic, but we’re still feeling the tail-end of it. At some point, especially during the pandemic, there was this strong encouragement to leaders because they were connecting many of them more from a distance to check in more than ever. Sometimes, it was happening that people were happier than before, but a lot of the time they were the same or having some challenges.
Therefore, for some leaders, it has actually led to compassion fatigue, a term that we used to use mostly for professions that were very focused on needing to listen to others like healthcare and education. Now, it’s every leader that has suddenly spent way more time asking the question. There’s been some of that as well, which then leads to also us, as leaders, looking at, “Given the new context, there used to be a way in which I was operating as a leader and it was working fine for me, and now the context is different. What do I need to hear to continue to be that fabulous, inspiring leader to my team?”
What is it that you are finding and recommending for these leaders for the future of work, for this coming year of 2023? What to expect? What are some top tips?
One of the things I said early in the pandemic was not so well-received, but now it’s a bit better. It’s as if people did not assume that things like this could happen. Of course they can, and they probably will, but just in different shapes and forms. The more we can now strategically plan our resilience, the better. Resilience is not a given. Even if leaders and highly performing professionals sometimes were told, “You’re so resilient,” and you’ve seen themselves go through so much, most of them get to a point where they think it’s a personality trait. It’s in them. It’s going to be there for them whenever they need it, and that’s it.The more we can now strategically plan our resilience, the better. Click To Tweet
The reality is that we need to nourish it. That’s the key aspect. For some of the people I work with, it is literally the game changer. That’s also the topic of my book, the idea that you need to be strategic about your results. Therefore, the same way you’ve been strategic about other things in your work when you’ve launched a product or a new service, when you’ve built a company, you’ve had to look at what were the supplies and demands? What were the elements of the context? What was the mission of your company? In this case, what are your values?
Given all this and given an objective of front loading on your resilience, given that we need to still build back to where we were, and then ideally front load for whatever’s going to come next, the additional demands, then each of us look at, “What does that mean for me? Where are my opportunities? Where are my gaps?” Often, leaders will assume that it’s in them, so they won’t do anything about it. They’ll also minimize their need to pay attention, thinking they need to support others instead. You still need to support others, but you also need to support to yourself so that you can continue to be fabulous.
We parents know. If you’re getting up constantly for your child that’s crying at night or something like that, and then when you’re depleted, you’re a little bit more irritable. It’s taking care of yourself, the sleep, exercise, the mental wellbeing, and all of those things.
It is all of those things. The people I work with don’t have the challenge of not knowing this. They know this. Everyone has heard this so much.
It’s not doing what they know.
That’s right. It’s how to implement it. The level of demands that they’re facing is such that external things will come on a regular all-day, all-night, never ending. How do you then protect the time to do these things? How will you select moments where you’re going to maintain a boundary to protect this time for you while there was an external demand that you wish you could have just said yes to. The same way for a business. You could be tempted to say yes to all of these requests, but if you’ve made your business plan and your strategic plan, you know which ones you’re going to say no to, and you know why.You could be tempted to say yes to all the requests, but if you've made your business and strategic plans, you know which ones you will say no to. Click To Tweet
That’s what a resilience plan looks like. That sounds interesting. Pick maybe a person that you’ve worked with or whatever. I really like what you said, and I talk about this a lot too, is that we have to protect our time, and protect those things that are most important, and plan for them. Make sure that they are scheduled or that there is space for what is most important. How does one do that when it comes to resilience?
Similar to what we do on the business front, building a plan that’s going to work right now that may need to evolve over time. Specifically, I was giving a keynote and a workshop for an organization. I had their leaders internationally all in one room. That’s what they were doing, building their personal strategic resilience plan.
We walked through those various pieces of conversations including, “What are your values?” At which point, we then created a plan the same way we would for any strategic plan, “Which pillars are you going to focus on and which type of actions are you going to have?” For this individual, one of his values was health. Therefore, he actually chose one of his strategic pillars to be to take care of his physical health specifically even more. He had specific actions.
We always look for actions that are very realistically doable. We don’t want someone who has not been exercising to say, “I’m going to go to the gym five times a week.” It’s not going to happen. For him, he was over 50, and he realized he had not seen a physician for the past six years. No check in, no nothing. That was one of his actions.
It’s when you take the time to look at your particular context, tying all of this together, that leads to creating a plan. It’s not creating something that looks nice on paper, but you’ll never do. It’s very specific to what you have right now. People do walk out of these conversations knowing exactly that his next action was clear. Book an appointment with my physician. That’s the idea. It’s bringing together the whole strategic planning here with everything we know about resilience and psychology to make it very personal to you now.
I just wanted people to hear a specific example so that they understand that it’s also a process that they know. You take what your goal is, and then you identify short-term, long-term goals, and the actions that go under those goals. It’s not complicated. The most important thing is that you pick things that are simple and actionable. You make it so that you’re actually taking action and not just making a plan. How many people make a plan and then never follow the plan?
It’s always that question. What’s most important, a really good strategy or just execution? We want both. We want a good strategy that is well-executed. Part of what that does is making sure that it is actionable and doable. I’ve actually had one person come to that same workshop twice. She was part of two different groups, and it just happened that way.
She had done her plan for over a year. For her, it was January, and it all had her actions. When she showed up here, she actually brought herself to do the exercise again and realized her plan was completely different because she did take these actions. It was the next thing for her. It’s very much something that’s alive and that will evolve over time.
What else do you think is important for the audience to know before we get into a wrap up? What did I miss? What didn’t I ask you that you think is really important for them to know?
When you start going into the details of this, and that’s where the challenges sometimes will reside. For example, people will usually agree with the logic of this. It becomes a challenge when their own beliefs get in the way. They may have a belief that they need to be there for others more than taking care of themselves. That will get in the way of taking actions. Or sometimes they will believe that they can override what their brain needs. For example, they’ll say, “If I actually put a few almost all-nighters a few times this week, I’ll be able to get on top of things. I’ll feel good. I will feel like I have control. This is part of what I want. That’s one of my values.”
I’ve got that little voice in my head too that says that. It’s always wrong.
That’s the complexity because when you work on having all of your values, you’re going to be able to see sometimes the conflicts between them. See the conflict between, “I want to take care of my health and invest in my resilience,” which means, “I should not put an all-nighter, or I should stop working at 9:00 so I can go to bed at 10:00, so I can sleep 7 to 8 hours.” Then you’ve got to have this value of getting things done and being on top of all my demands.
How do you break through that? That’s a great example because I think probably 35% of the people, if not more, have that specific challenge.
For each person, it’s going to differ. One person I worked with, for example, had to then step back and look at the details of, “Am I able to do one night that I will sleep six hours? I’m going to use that. It will be a one time. I’m not going to try to do everything I have to do. I’m going to focus on the two things that really have to be done at this moment in time, knowing I’m not going to be on top of everything.” It’s almost like flexing on a bit of both, but it’s often like this. When values don’t go in the same direction, it usually is not the best idea to just pick one and run with it, “I will just sleep and not do the work, or I will just do the work and not sleep.” It’s finding the flexibility between the two and being creative. In order to do that, the more you’ve built your own resilience, it will make it even easier to find solutions. Sometimes, that’s why people talk to professionals, like executive coaches like myself and others, to help them figure it out.
Sometimes it feels overwhelming and you just can’t see forests through the trees. That absolutely can help you to break that down. I’m just curious. I ask a lot of different people this question, how do you define productivity and why?
In preparation for our conversation, it did prompt that reflection. I was looking at the American Psychological Association’s definitions along these lines as well because I do a lot of my continuing education with them. I do think that some elements of the ratio between output and inputs, and in the end how much is it taking you to produce the quantity or the quality of what you want? What is that ratio?
From a psychological perspective, if I look at what I know from a business side and the psychological side, the more we’ve frontloaded and brought the best we can for our brain to function the best it possibly can, then assuming we’re in the line of work that we’re good at, we’re trained in, and we enjoy, then we will do pretty good. Quite likely, the productivity will be there. Where I see my clients struggle is when this has suffered, and then it leads to challenges on the productivity side. Back feeling here often leads to the results they want.
I’ve interviewed hundreds of people, and everybody has a different definition as to what it is. That’s also one of the things in the workplace that we have to understand and agree on what are some of these terms? You talked about bringing a language, a vernacular to things. It’s understanding how do we define productivity in this context? You also said that, which I think is really important. Contexts change, and so we have to revisit together and say, “How do we define productivity today versus yesterday? How do we define resilience? How are we going to make that happen?” Good stuff. Tell us where people can find out more about you, and then we’ll bring it to a close.
Website is DrMHPelletier.com. They’ll find me online or on LinkedIn. I’m always happy to hear from people your thoughts on this conversation. It’s a great conversation. Thank you, Penny.
It’s my pleasure. Before we close out, what is the best piece of advice that you got or a personal lesson that really hit home?
I often talk about the lessons I learned and often I bring that to the stage. I think one of the lessons the importance of having a plan, of knowing what your action plan is in order to protect your resilience. Because in the absence of a plan, when you’re going to have all these demands, unexpected, larger demands, and some chronic like a pandemic, for example, we’re going to lose sight of the plan, and then that’s where people deplete or even put themselves at risk. I did get that personal lesson in a mountain adventure that I share. That would be the lesson, having a plan.
Thank you for being here. It’s important that you take a step back. As readers, you took the time to read to this program about wellness, about resilience, about in the workplace, and really to walk away from this discussion with that understanding that the best way to be resilient is to have a resilience plan and to be proactive. What is one of the things that’s most important to you, and what’s one step and one action that you can take following this that will help you to be on your way, to protect and build your resilience? That’s your assignment for today for those who are reading, is to identify that one action that’s going to make the biggest difference for you when it comes to protecting and building your resilience. Thanks for being here. We’ll see you in the next episode.
About Dr. Marie-Helene Pelletier
Dr. Marie-Helene Pelletier is an award-winning Leadership and Workplace Mental Health Expert, Psychologist, Advisor and Speaker. As one of only a handful of work psychologists holding both a PHD and MBA, Dr. Pelletier brings a mix of business and clinical expertise to her talks and client work. She has led mental health strategy in senior leadership positions for organizations such as Sun Life Financial, a Global 500 company. Dr. Pelletier has been on the boards of the Canadian Psychological Association and the International Association of Applied Psychology and is an active member of the Global Clinical Practice Network of the World Health Organization. She possesses a unique ability to translate psychology research about health, performance, and resiliency into strategies that professionals, leaders, and teams need to thrive.
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