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"Do you want to talk about it?" or Corporate Wellbeing at EmailSoldiers

"Do you want to talk about it?" or Corporate Wellbeing at EmailSoldiers

Your team's wellbeing is essential, so it's important you spot any early signs of fatigue or burnout. If the situation is spiraling out of control you need to resort to the help of a professional counselling psychologist who knows how to recover from a burnout. In our article, we're talking about our experience with therapy.

In 2020, the EmailSoldiers team faced the problem of collective burnout — it was time to think of corporate wellbeing.

How We Got There

We started digging into the reasons of how we got to this state of mind. The main cause was the company's growth, which led to an increase in the number of projects and complex tasks.

This affected the team in several ways:

  1. The workload got heavier.
  2. The degree of responsibility for projects increased.
  3. Newbies were challenged to grow faster so that clients wouldn't even notice if a leading manager, author, or designer got sick or took time off.
  4. We felt disconnected and fatigued after the first lockdown — many of us found it hard to adapt to working from home.

Jokes like "we need a corporate therapist" became a trend within the team.

Following the example of other companies, we decided to invite a psychologist who would tell us about burnout. During the meeting, we learned that there was a problem. Many people delved into it, but one meeting wasn't enough for that. More and more questions appeared and mixed with our own professional problems. We realized that we needed the help of a skilled psychologist who had experience in working with companies.

It was time to save our soldiers.

How We Found Our Psychologist

At the end of 2020, our founders got into the School of Management SKOLKOVO, where they met Nadya Safyan — a psychologist who had both the necessary experience and energy.

Nadezhda Safyan's professional achievements

The founders and Nadya found common ground and decided that the company needed her. Tatyana, our HR director, started planning meetings.

Conversation between the CEO and the psychologist

During the first meeting we touched upon the following things:

  • the problems the team faces;
  • the progress of the employees in professional and personal spheres;
  • the team energy level;
  • how folks coped with the lockdown and working from home;
  • what influenced the team and everyone separately.

We worked out a plan:

  1. Test the team to find out what bothered them.
  2. Make a calendar scheduling the sessions to work on the problems.
  3. Prepare sessions where we would discuss cases the employee would be comfortable with.
  4. Leave room for individual sessions.

We knew we could deviate from the plan: we could come across more urgent issues that would need to be prioritized. Spoiler: this is exactly what happened.

How We Prepared the Team for the Sessions

We first asked the team to take a test. We did this for several reasons:

  • to see the degree of fatigue and what influenced it;
  • to define the nature of the stress connected with work and how it was expressed;
  • to identify the challenges the team faced while communicating with clients and coworkers while organizing their workflow;
  • to understand what vision of the workflow priorities the employees had.

The testing and processing of the results were to take us nine days. We sent the team a survey informing them about the start of the mental health support campaign. The survey was anonymous.

Invitation to the group therapy session with a psychologist

What We Learned

We were happy to see the team's robust response. Nadya also noted that the team was very open.

Message from the corporate psychologist

In the end, we got 44 responses — this is almost 60% of the team (for November 2020).

We saw that 60% of the surveyed employees were fatigued:

Results of the fatigue level survey

According to the team, there were three main signs of fatigue:

  • 77% — physical discomfort: back pains; eye strain;
  • 70% — being anxious about making a mistake, feeling insecure, lowering self-esteem;
  • 52% — rapid fatigue.
Main signs of the fatigue mentioned by the respondents

The team was also offered to enumerate the factors that, in their mind, could make the situation better:

  • interesting projects;
  • less top-priority tasks;
  • being able to forecast the workload level and the opportunity to focus on one process;
  • continuous feedback and help from the employer;
  • keeping work and personal life separate;
  • getting better sleep and finding time to exercise.

We Found What Caused Stress in the Team

Everyone described the work atmosphere as great but still, there were some problems:

  1. Some processes were not systematized: people could behave in a way that didn't correlate with the existing rules. It wasn't a common thing but when it did happen, it caused a lot of stress.
  2. The fact that there wasn't a strict hierarchy in our company. We knew it when we created our values and we were cool with it (and we still are), but some employees found it difficult to work in such a system.
  3. Remote work affected communication: people didn't feel like they were a part of the team — they felt like observers. For those who were more comfortable working from the office, the new reality was especially hard to adapt to.
  4. Some people missed the regular meetings, while others thought there were too many of them :) We didn't have time to think through our system of online communication, as there was a lot going on: the pandemic, adjusting to working from home, and leaving our previous office.
  5. Project deadlines became a problem: sometimes we didn't manage to finish everything in time, which undermined the trust within the team. In the new reality, it became obvious that everyone's organizational skills were different and it started to affect the processes.
  6. It turned out some people didn't have enough communication skills, as it was difficult for them to prove their point or give objective feedback. We were all too soft trying not to hurt each other's feelings. However, constructive criticism is essential for effective communication.
  7. Our team was growing and the atmosphere was changing. We knew it was natural but it was still hard for us to face it. We just needed to embrace the changes and create a new world in our company.

Among other stress factors, there was organizational stuff: the conference rooms that were always occupied, the lack of understanding of each other's areas of responsibility, the unavailability of a colleague which made it impossible to discuss some work-related issues.

So, we found out what bothered the team and what needed to be discussed. We planned 45 hours of lectures, 45 hours of group sessions where we would look into certain cases, and 30 hours for individual sessions. Thus the process began.

The First Sessions with the Psychologist and the First Results

We decided to start with a lecture on the nature of fatigue. The team had a chance to get acquainted with Nadya, formulated the rules of safe cooperation, and most of all, they learned that feeling tired is okay.

We touched upon several topics:

  • burnout and the source of fatigue;
  • forming alliances with colleagues and clients;
  • mapping professional development pathways;
  • learning to set personal boundaries;
  • work-life balance;
  • mental integrity;
  • the nature of fear.

We learned how to spot the early signs of fatigue and how we can handle this. We got so deep into the topic of fatigue that one of the employees immediately wanted to share their emotional case.

During the first sessions the folks were clearly exhausted — they were in bad spirits and self-conscious. That's why everyone was as sincere as possible. It was clearly time to discuss everything!

On one hand, such a deep dive into our problems helped us get to their core and start working on them immediately. On the other hand, not everyone was ready to open up like that.

We decided to discuss less delicate topics at first to make the immersion comfortable for all people. However, the folks seemed to have other plans, as they continued to bring up cases that required deep analysis. No matter how hard we tried to focus on the work-related issues, we went back to personal problems every time.

The mental health support group became less crowded which meant people found solutions to their problems

We made sure the team was involved in the sessions, speaking of their importance and their results. Nevertheless, fewer and fewer people came to the meetings, and here's why:

  1. As we tackled more and more issues, the sessions started losing their relevance.
  2. Some employees attended only the sessions they were interested in.
  3. Some people didn't treat the online sessions seriously, so they watched the recordings of our meetings.
  4. Most people chose individual sessions and there was nothing left for the group sessions.
  5. Some people were already going through therapy and they didn't want the two processes to overlap
Sharing personal stuff with the team and knowing they hear me answering questions that trigger me isn't easy. It seemed fine at first, but then I started watching the recorded sessions.

Eventually, there were 15 people left in the mental health support group.

It wasn't a lot but it helped us be more open with each other. By the middle stage of the project we were so close that we could share our most intimate thoughts: we could talk about our problems at home, grieve together, and provide each other with genuine support. Nadya made sure our sessions were a safe space — the recordings of the most emotional meetings were available only for the participants and our conversations were only between us.

New Problems Called for New Formats

After the first sessions, the folks understood they could trust Nadya, so they started offering their own topics for discussion. This is how the parent support group formed who also had several meetings where Nadya and they touched upon several things:

  • feeling guilty, where they looked for the accuser and defender subpersonalities;
  • learning about the victim mentality and how you can overcome it;
  • learning to maintain the balance between work and home.

We touched on some personal issues: talked about our families, kids, about stuff that hurts the most. These meetings turned out to be the most emotionally charged:

I'll never forget the meeting for moms. It was such a uniting experience for all of us: we cried our eyes out because we realized we weren't alone.

What Failures We Had and How We Made It Right

By the end of the first month, we didn't know what to do. We discussed one problem after another, explored new areas of our subconscious but we never had a chance to let the information sink in. Emotional strain built up also because we lived through the cases that others shared. We felt like getting tangled in a ball of problems and there was no way we could ever untangle it. It's hard when the New Year is around the corner and you're trapped in your head.

It all got fixed by a group session on the 30th of December. It was a psychological online training where we analyzed the year that was coming to an end. Even though it lasted three hours, the time flew by: we wrote down everything that happened during this challenging year, what we were grateful for, and what we expected from 2021. We left the meeting in a great mood, ready to take on the world — our balls of worries got untangled and we went to celebrate the New Year.

Results and Conclusions

In 6 months of collaborating with Nadya we had:

  • around 30 group sessions that lasted for 73 hours;
  • 17 individual sessions that lasted 23.5 hours;
  • 20 follow-up meetings after the program finished which lasted for 41 hours.

It took us much time and other resources but it was definitely worth it:

1. When the program came to an end, we created a large library of materials:

A library of materials on psychological themes

2. We support the newcomers by sharing the useful techniques that we learned during the sessions. Some newbies also had an opportunity to attend the sessions, which helped them adapt better:

The meetings helped me blend in. I could meet the team, have a chat with them, share a laugh or two, and even cry with them.

3. We support each other. The mental health support program allowed our team to form a mutual-aid culture. We started to understand many things that Nadya spoke about during the sessions and now we were able to help each other when times were rough. It's amazing to feel that you can trust your team.

4. We conduct pulse surveys on a constant basis to see the current level of employee engagement and spot any signs of fatigue, feeling left out, lost, unmotivated, or signs of mistrust. In May, the average score of the team's wellbeing was rather low, but then it started to steadily go up:

Results of pulse surveys from april to november

5. We introduced one-to-one meetings (which we call "Antwans"): a team lead has a heart-to-heart with their employee to discuss the work problems the employee may have, the plans, and give advice.

6. Some employees noted that their life changed for the better since they met Nadya. The folks gained a better understanding of their desires, reactions to the world, they learned what triggered them, and how people could manipulate them, how they could spot the first signs of burnout, and what they could do.

I never went to therapy before. I thought it was some fancy nonsense. To be honest, I was afraid. What do they say? Our grandparents did perfectly fine without therapists as they did without washing machines — they were healthy and happy!

The sessions with Nadya let me know I was wrong. Even after the first meeting, it was clear to me that I had some brain fixing to do, or I would end up with a burnout and a severe neurotic disorder.

I'm grateful to EmailSoldiers for taking care of our mental health. It's been a year since we started therapy, and I can say that I've become wiser, calmer, and cooler.

The Main Advantage of the Mental Health Support Program for Employees

Working with a therapist helped:

  • the whole team — we became more stress- and change-resistant;
  • each employee — to gain self-confidence, to form their position in the company, and to improve their communication skills.

We managed to do all of this because working with the therapist helped us become self-aware and learn what influences our physical and mental state. We got the methods for solving certain problems both at work and in personal life. We started trusting each other more and showing support without any judgment or evaluation.

The program is amazing!

It's difficult to remember everything and put it to practice, but it was certainly great for bringing us together. I'm sure the new employees who joined the program right away had a smoother integration process. It was helpful for the old-time employees as well to keep in touch during the pandemic and the moving to the new office.

Almost all people who took part in the program noticed another bonus from the sessions — they learned how to cope with problems and difficulties on their own and how to get through any negative experience.

What Now?

Our main mental health support program has come to an end, but we still continue working with Nadya (only in a different format). It's hard to go without sessions with a therapist, especially when there are lots of burning deadlines.

We gather for support sessions two or three times a month, where we discuss work cases. We learn how to react to feedback, express our frustration without the fear of being judged or misunderstood. We learn how to find our inner strength, fight the imposter syndrome, and resolve other urgent issues.

Therapy sessions became part of the onboarding process

We hold four meetings for the newcomers.

The first meeting is dedicated to a mindful transition to a new company, working on breaking from the boundaries set by the previous employer.

The second session is especially useful for people who're only at the beginning of their professional journey — EmailSoldiers is their first job experience, so they're afraid to step into adulthood, express themselves, "get bad grades", let the team down, fail.

The third meeting is necessary to discuss our corporate culture, define the level of responsibility, independence, and freedom that needs to be taken seriously.

The fourth one is for reflecting on the previous sessions and having a chit chat with the founders :)

EmailSoldiers have a special place in my heart, as we have a lot in common: we value freedom and don't acknowledge rules for the sake of rules and strict hierarchy.

Right now EmailSoldiers are in the process of constant development and growth and I'm happy to join them on this journey. They've changed a lot since we started working together. They've grown, bloomed, are now achieving their goals, and aren't wasting their resources.

Rapid growth is usually associated with big changes. Changes are exciting and motivating, but they can also cause discomfort, stress, and anxiety. The familiar communication patterns and roles start shifting, forcing the employees to resynchronize. Everyone needs support: to look at the situation from a different angle, to figure out what's going on, and to unlock their potential.

In 2020, people all around the world had to go through changes and they're not going anywhere. This is a loss of some kind that we need to get over: the world we know doesn't exist anymore, it transforms every day. We need to learn to appreciate these transformations.

The EmailSoldiers team is doing a great job of adaptation. This is cool!

Nadya Safyan on working with EmailSoldiers

Now we're planning on discussing management cases with the therapist, holding sessions for teams, and talking about their problems. The segmentation will allow us to get a better understanding of what the folks are going through and provide them with quality support.

Individual sessions are still going strong — they help the employees to cope with rough times they may have at work or at home.

We all agree that a positive mental atmosphere in the team and the mental health of each employee are essential for maintaining quality performance.

Maria Nikolayeva
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