The Real Girl in Red and What It Means for Employee Mental Health

“Do you listen to the girl in red?”

It’s a good question for anyone whose job it is to understand workplace culture and employee mental health. The question has become a coded way for women on social media to ask each other if they’re queer. But for HR and talent leaders, the question carries significance beyond gender identity.

The hashtag #doyoulistentogirlinred was created in April 2020. The tag was the outgrowth of Girl in Red, a pop music project of Marie Ulven. She is a 22-year-old Norwegian singer-songwriter and record producer. Ulven shot to prominence between 2018 and 2019 with homemade bedroom-pop songs about queer romance and (here’s the connection for employers everywhere) mental health.

In a recent interview with NPR’s Weekend Edition, Ulven discussed fame, sexuality, her new album, and her battles with mental ill-health.

She specifically talked about the continuing stigma that prevents so many people from speaking out or seeking support for their mental health challenges. Even the name of her new album, “If I Could Make It Go Quiet,” speaks to a challenge that many people face: undesired intrusive thoughts they can’t control.

The stigma is real. Are you listening?

Another song on Ulven’s album called “Serotonin” is even more direct about Ulven’s struggle with mental illness.

“I’ve been struggling with intrusive thoughts my entire life, and I’m just mentioning a couple in this song,” Ulven told NPR host Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

When asked what she hoped people would take away from this song and her experiences with mental ill-health, Ulven replied, “I really hope that people feel less crazy.”

“I think it’s so important to just hear that a lot of people have these thoughts,“ Ulven continued. “I’ve been scared about jumping in front of trains, been really scared of being at train stations. And I’ve had so many people message me about that, like ‘I relate so much to this song.’”

Her audience is your workforce

In general, Ulven might just as well be speaking on behalf of a huge percentage of today’s workforce. For example, one estimate says more than six million people in the United States may experience intrusive, worrying thoughts. Amid the stress and upheaval caused by COVID-19 and so many social and political events in the last year, a growing number of employees are:

  • Urging employers to be proactive and provide preventive programs and tools to help them navigate their mental health
  • Increasingly saying they want to work for companies that have a culture of caring for the whole employee—including physical, social, and mental aspects

Even before the pandemic, in 2019, one study investigating the attitudes of employee mental health found that:

  • 86 percent of survey participants thought a company’s culture should support mental health.
  • 75 percent of Gen Z employees (like Ulven, currently between the ages of six and 24) and half of millennials left roles in the past for mental health reasons (voluntarily and involuntarily), compared with 34 percent of respondents overall.

Unfortunately, too many employers aren’t getting the message. A recent study by Unmind and WELCOA found that:

  • Barely one in three employers (37 percent) feel they have a strong understanding of the mental health and well-being of their people.
  • Only 64 percent of employers have a strategy in place for specifically managing employee mental health and well-being.

The light at the end of the tunnel: the mental health train headed in your direction

Yes, Americans are starting to return to the workplace, returning to the rituals of after-work drinks and lunching together at nearby restaurants. But the fallout of COVID-19 will be felt in the workplace for quite a long while. With this in mind, a year of living in fear, isolation, and sorrow may have taken a toll on the mental and emotional health of your employees.

“We’re seeing pretty alarming numbers,” says Vaile Wright, senior director of healthcare innovation at the American Psychological Association (APA), who oversees its Stress in America survey. “People’s bodies and minds just aren’t in quite the fit place they were in a year ago.”

At the same time, most employees are afraid to talk about being stressed out and possibly burned out. According to a recent survey by Joblist, almost 48 percent of employees fear negative consequences. Namely, they’re concerned they may be denied a raise or promotion if they talk about work stress.

What can you do? Chiefly, Unmind argues that the answer lies in embracing the new vision of workplace mental health. The first step is to understand the four foundational elements needed to help manifest a  proactive, prevention-based approach to employee mental health.

Those four pillars are:

1. The whole-person, whole-organization mindset

Basically, this should be the north star for any employee mental health solution. It aims to do more than respond with a treatment to mental health issues. Or simply ease employee stress and anxiety.

2. No employee left behind 

Too many mental well-being platforms and apps simply fail to empower everyone to navigate their own situation. With this in mind, instead of offering treatment options only for the one in five U.S. employees who report having mental health concerns, solutions should offer programs and tools for everyone.

3. Empowerment for employees and insight for HR and well-being leaders

An optimal mental health platform will only succeed if it can deliver on three critical drivers of its value. These include 1) measurement of outcomes, 2) variety of programs and tools, and 3) accessibility for everyone. It will empower employees with a variety of tools. These can include self-guided programs, in-the-moment exercises, daily diaries, and the receiving of gratitude and praise.

4. Human touch and solid science

The new vision of workplace mental health demands the right support for you and your employees. The science and software behind even the best-planned solution will be next to useless without proper vendor support.

With those pillars to build upon, you would have a proactive workplace mental health platform. Also, you would have an authoritative and trusted partner to help deliver better well-being, improved employee performance, and enriched company culture, and a stronger brand.

In addition, far fewer of your employees would feel alone and disenfranchised. As you create a new beginning for workplace mental health, you’ll be offering your employees something positive as they enter a  post-pandemic world.


Addressing Your Employees’ Holiday Stress

It’s that time of year again: Fourth quarter results are almost finalized, companies are wrapping up contracts, evaluating the successes of the past year, and developing strategic plans for the coming year. This means it’s a busy time for your employees. When you add to the equation busy social calendars, kids getting out of school for holidays (and working parents scrambling as a result), along with holiday financial commitments—stress levels for your employees inevitably rise. What can you do as an employer, a manager, or even an HR pro, to help ease that holiday stress?

Let’s discuss.

One study in the UK found that nearly three quarters (73 percent) of people are more stressed ahead of the holidays—but the stress doesn’t end there. Nearly one in five workers (18 percent) actually returns to work more stressed than when they left. For most of us, this isn’t exactly news. The holidays are generally jam packed with engagements and massive to-do lists. The thing about stress, though, is that it can have a serious impact on our health, as well as overall productivity at work; it’s actually easy to spend more time stressing out than actually getting things done.

So, how can senior leaders help reduce stress and keep everyone’s momentum going? The answer is a combination of smart technology use, and making sure employees have time for things like fitness, yoga, or even meditation. Here are some ways you can help your employees handle holiday stress.

Give Them Ideas: Help Your Employees See Possibilities

“Take a break” means different things to different people, so keep that in mind as you toss out ideas that might be potential stress relievers. For some exercise is key, and getting out of the office for a walk may work. But for another, leaving their desk for 10 minutes will only escalate their worries over whether tasks will get done. For some, a quick game of ping pong or shooting hoops outside for twenty minutes will be a perfect release, so think about that as you design work spaces and encourage regular breaks.

Humor and creativity also activate the brain and release endorphins. Think about designating one afternoon a week for a “creative” session and let employees paint on canvases, color, design their own holiday cards using supplies you provide, or some other creative task that will let their brains relax. Bring in a local comedian during lunch or knock off early one day, and let your team enjoy some laughs together. Encourage them to do a holiday play or work in teams to create a holiday video and make it into a contest. These are all things that don’t have to cost a fortune, but the benefits they can deliver in terms of not only team-building, but also in terms of stress reduction, are huge.

Even better? The best ideas and sense of well-being often happen when individuals are in a state of creativity, feeling relaxed and comfortable. Your employees will likely return to work after a creative break feeling happy and energized and that will no doubt result in not only less stress, but also greater productivity. A win-win for all.

Focus on Health and Make it Fun

Anyone who’s ever tried to eat healthier or exercise more knows from experience that it’s a marathon not a sprint. Especially during the holiday season, which is fraught with land mines in the form of parties, tins of popcorn, and too many sugary snacks just begging to be sampled. All these things are a source of stress for employees, and striving to stay fit and healthy is typically an ongoing challenge. This is a perfect time to perhaps bring people together by way of a fitness or healthy eating challenge. Using a combination of wearable devices, smart phones, and apps, it is easy to track progress, encourage one another, or even compete if desired. The great thing about wearables is that they often have functionality that nudges you to stand up regularly, measure and evaluate your sleep habits, and track your fitness. Many apps allow you to connect teams and to be motivated by others as part of the fitness process. Helping your team stay fit with fun fitness challenges and rewards for progress keeps them feeling good about themselves, less stressed about work, and less frazzled about fitness and weight management.

Measuring Progress: Ask for Feedback

Don’t assume that what you’re doing in terms of working to reduce stress during the holidays is helping. Ask your team for their ideas and feedback about your stress-reduction experiments. Encourage them to put forth their own ideas as well, and make them part of the process. Programs, even fun ones, are only as successful as your team thinks they are, so make sure you’re soliciting feedback about the programs you put into place, as well as encouraging your team as a whole to come up with their own suggestions and ideas. An empowered, engaged team is a powerful thing; you might be amazed at some of the cool ideas that come up as a result of involving them. Make sure that beyond simply asking for feedback, endeavor to use that feedback to measure and evaluate the impact your stress-reduction programs are having on your team.

Whatever you do, make sure your employees are aware that you understand the pressures they’re under, and that you are committed to making stress reduction, fitness, fun, and relaxation priorities. Doing so will help them take the actions they need to remain productive and happy through the holiday season and into the New Year.

Photo Credit: HoursDeOuvre via Compfight cc