Psychological Consulting: A Partnership for Emotional Fitness
Before Austen Heinz, the 31-year old CEO of Cambrian Genetics took his life in 2015, a string of suicides had rocked the startup world. Heinz suffered from bipolar depression – an illness he rarely discussed but likely added to the pressures he faced as an entrepreneur juggling the demands of shipping a product, meeting payroll, and managing public relations. His death sparked a conversation around mental health issues among entrepreneurs and prompted a research study on the subject led by Dr. Michael Freeman.
Because May is Mental Health Awareness Month, we want to do our part to foster discussion and build awareness of this important subject.
We sought out the expertise of Dr. Emily Anhalt, who referenced Dr. Freeman’s research study in her 4-part series on “The Emotionally Fit Founder.” She describes emotional fitness as “an ongoing commitment to looking inward, processing through difficult emotions, and working toward self-awareness and self-improvement.”
For the last eight years, Dr. Anhalt has been working with founders, entrepreneurs, and executives, destigmatizing the issues around mental illness by facilitating discussions on topics such as Imposter Syndrome, ADHD, Depression, Anxiety and Stress Management. Using her background in psychological consulting, she is able to help individuals at all levels of the organization improve their emotional health which, in turn, positively impact the overall health of the business.
We invite you to read Dr. Anhalt’s article on psychological consulting below:
What is Psychological Consulting?
The concept of People Operations is relatively new. For a long time, HR departments were in charge of auditing health insurance policies, building compensation packages and managing company-wide issues and claims.
Over time, companies realized because every organization consists of individuals, an important ingredient for success requires taking care of the people. It has become increasingly common for companies to care for their employees’ financial well-being with higher salaries and great benefits, their physical health with office lunches and gym memberships, and their mental wellness with yoga classes and unlimited vacation days.
What I believe is still missing, however, is the recognition that an employee’s day-to-day emotional health significantly impacts their work, and thus the company’s success. If a founder, manager, or employee has a challenge in their personal life or has issues with colleagues, their work will suffer.
While management is increasingly encouraged to see employees as human and to connect with them as much as possible, they do not have the training or the bandwidth to handle all the emotional truths of humanity that can surface in the workplace. There is also little emotional support for managers, especially when a company encounters difficulty.
This is the void that Psychological Consulting fills. It bridges the gap between business, and human emotions and behavior. It recognizes that our personal and work lives intertwine and overlap more than ever, and emotions, communication tendencies and relationship styles play a huge role in the way every employee works. Finally, it serves to create a safe psychological space for executives, management, teams and employees.
As an example of how Psychological Consulting can help, I’ll tell you a story with two different endings. It is a story inspired by the thousands of folks in Silicon Valley who have been through this or something similar.
The Old Way
In the first version, a 20-something-year-old man (I’ll call him Jason) works at a startup in the Bay Area. Jason loves his work culture and his coworkers; they eat lunch together every day, they get together outside of work, and they’ve developed effective habits and teamwork strategies.
One day, the startup’s founders call a meeting and announce that dreams have become reality. The startup has been purchased by a large company. Effective almost immediately, they will move to the City and work in a new office. Jason is thrilled, but he also has some apprehension. Will his job be safe at the new company, will he have the same title, and will he be appreciated by his new boss and team?
Two months later at his new company, almost everything about Jason’s day-to-day life is different. Where he used to have face-time with his CEO on a daily basis, he now has little to no contact with upper management. Where he used to work on every part of the company, he is now siloed into one small aspect of the product. Lunch has gone from feeling like a daily get-together with friends to a high-school cafeteria nightmare. His title has changed, and although he feels welcomed and liked by his new colleagues, he’s having a hard time adjusting to the company’s social norms and rules.
Jason’s coworkers face similar issues and don’t feel their new company has taken the time to learn about their culture and set them up for success. Productivity, morale, and cohesiveness take a hit across the board, and it takes months for things to settle.
An Alternate Ending
Now here’s another version of the story. This time, both the startup and the large company bring in a Psychological Consultant before breaking the news of the acquisition. The consultant is briefed on the culture and ethos of both companies and helps strategize the best way to set all employees up for success during the transition. The consultant helps managers understand the psychology of change and how it can be both exciting and anxiety-provoking. They work with the founders to create a plan for how to share the news and about what might come up for the employees when they do.
When the announcement is made, the consultant is introduced as in impartial resource who is available to help everyone process their concerns, excitement, and any other feelings that arise. If people want to vent the consultant listens; if people are confused the consultant translates. When the companies merge, the consultant helps with the inevitable ambivalence that comes up for Jason and his coworkers and creates a safe space for emotions to be felt through so they are not acted out in the workplace.
In the end, Jason, his colleagues, the founders and the company are more productive, there is less attrition, and everyone feels seen, heard and appreciated.
Which Version Is For You?
In many ways, a company is like a family. When there are major changes in a family (like divorce, moving to a new house, or having another child), or even minor changes like switching up the rules, everyone reacts differently.
This story about an acquisition is one of many types of change that happens at a company. If a VP, founder or manager leaves, if there are layoffs or intense onboarding, if a company rolls out a new policy, if there is any major change, people will have feelings about it. If those feelings are not explored and processed, it’s not uncommon for productivity and cooperation to decrease dramatically as employees act out their emotions in unproductive or unhealthy ways, often without realizing it.
Founders, managers, and HR are on the front line of these changes and play a pivotal role in supporting employees. However, it can be challenging to help so many people process through an event that they also are involved with, and have feelings about. This is where bringing in a Psychological Consultant can be hugely beneficial.
Psychological Consultants are trained to hold space effectively, professionally and confidentially. They support HR, management, and employees and bring a unique skill-set and knowledge base to the equation. Their presence demonstrates to employees that a company recognizes the fact that its decisions affect everyone.
In short, a Psychological Consultant acts as an objective and empathetic other.
They want to see everyone be productive, cohesive and happy, but are not inherently invested in the outcome. They create and hold a much-needed safe space for employees to be human.
Please visit Dr. Emily Anhalt’s website for the original version of this post.