Emotional fitness expert: We can prevent mental health issues and flourish in adversity

We’ve lived through a year of uncertainty, isolation, financial struggles, and fear. That resulted in a massive pandemic of mental health issues, yet many people are still ashamed to admit that they’re not doing well. Even more so at work, where the fear of stigma trumps the need to seek help. What needs to change, and how can employers take part in the journey towards employee wellbeing? We’ve talked to Linda Simonsen, an emotional fitness expert who runs Kleu, a digital business that provides emotional body armor for employees on the front line.

We all have a tough year behind us. Whether we’re aware of it or not, in a way, we’ve been collectively traumatized. How was mental health affected?

The mental health toll may be far greater than the physical health impact. There’s no rapid test or vaccine for that. Even before Covid, the World Health Organisation had identified mental health as the biggest challenge faced by the world (2019). 

In a world where we’re more digitally connected than ever before, meaningful connection is absent, and the loneliness pandemic was well underway before Covid arrived. 

The social isolation associated with the pandemic has exacerbated this. People need genuine human connection to give their lives meaning and purpose. Without it, they can become anxious and depressed. Add to this isolation with fear for your physical health and that of your loved ones, additional personal obligations, and then put financial distress in the mix, and the stress can simply be too much to bear for many people. 

In the US, the rate of depression and anxiety has quadrupled within a 12-month period. And that’s taking into account only those who have sought help. The actual statistics are likely to be far greater. 

Your company, Kleu, focuses specifically on helping frontline workers. The pandemic must have been extremely hard on them. Are employers paying attention? And if they don’t, what are the consequences?

The pandemic has highlighted how dependent we are on our frontline customer support employees but has exacerbated underlying issues. These employees were already dealing with challenging situations every day without being adequately equipped with the emotional fitness to handle it. That is resulting in burnt-out people and poor customer experiences. Now they have to support people who are in distress, on top of managing the pandemic-related personal stressors.

Employers are starting to pay attention, but we need the education to raise awareness and a mindset shift. Current solutions are ‘band-aids’. For example, employee assistance programs (EAP) usually take place only after a problem has surfaced. Workplace mental health programs provide valuable education to raise awareness of how to identify and manage a mental health problem. However, we need to shift to preventing the problem in the first place rather than trying to fix people after they’ve broken down.

Mental health is a sensitive topic. How can leaders and employers act with empathy but without crossing boundaries? 

Mental health issues still carry a stigma. People can be embarrassed or ashamed to admit they are struggling for fear of judgment. Often leaders want to help, but they don’t know how; they don’t possess the knowledge or tools. And, of course, in the current environment, they may be struggling themselves. Empathy is key.

It starts with employers raising awareness of the importance of mental health and demonstrating genuine care. We also need to educate managers on how to support their employees, signs to watch out for, how to have the conversation, and how to manage performance during mental health challenges. Left unsupported, a mental health challenge can turn into a mental illness that may undermine performance.

What the world and workplaces need are brave leaders who are willing to share their personal stories. At least one in three people will experience a mental health challenge in their lifetime. It’s through empathy and vulnerability that true connection forms, and real change occurs.
Supporting the emotional health of your workforce isn’t just the right thing to do; it makes business sense. Healthy employees are more productive.

We’re generally aware that we can – and should – seek help if we have a problem. But I’d guess people often don’t know that preventing issues is also possible. Can you tell us more about emotional fitness and its importance?

Prevention is definitely better than cure! We now need to see the same evolution in mental health as we’ve seen in physical health. That means shifting from treatment and management to prevention. Equipping people to manage stress is key. Modern life is stressful, and that’s unlikely to go away. While we can’t take the stress out of life, we can equip people to relate to and manage their responses to stressors differently. This is where emotional fitness comes in.

Emotional fitness is just like physical fitness, and it’s built in the same way. When we are physically fit, we have greater stamina and are less susceptible to injury. When we are emotionally fit, we are more resilient, can manage stress better, and most importantly, can connect with others in a more meaningful way.

Kleu helps workers build emotional fitness. What does that look like? What skills are they gaining, and what are the results? 

A person who is emotionally fit responds rather than reacts in emotional situations, preventing behavioral choices that they may later regret or which don’t help the situation. They know how to display genuine empathy and ask curious questions to uncover what’s really going on with the other person. This builds the trust and connection needed to collaborate to solve problems together.

So, whether it’s in an interaction with a customer or colleague in the workplace, or with a family member or friend in their personal life, an emotionally fit person can engage with their own emotions or those of others in a constructive way to achieve the best possible outcome. Emotions don’t hijack the situation.

Kleu uses technology to build a new set of ’emotional fitness’ habits. How does it work?

Emotional fitness is about actual sustained behavior change. Kleu uses technology such as AI, simulation and gamification, to drive this behavior change and embed the skills as a new set of habits. This is important, because often when we are under pressure or faced with a threat, we revert to old habits that don’t necessarily serve us well.

The human brain is remarkably malleable; it can literally re-organize itself into a higher functioning state based on the data it receives. Kleu relies on this neuroplasticity and uses simulations to enable a person to practice applying the new skills in a safe digital world in various settings, with no real-world consequences. By practicing the skills and receiving feedback from a digital coach, people adapt their behavior and repeat it, creating new neural networks in the brain.

We’ve demonstrated the ability to embed new behavioral responses in less than 12 weeks with just 3 x 15-minute digital coaching sessions per week. The impact on business results is significant; reduced sick leave and staff turnover, better customer experiences and sales outcomes, as well as dramatically improved workplace culture, where people feel valued and connected.

What about the leaders? Should emotional intelligence & fitness be imperative for them? 

Leadership is about facilitating the performance of others. Performance is measured in terms of behavior. Behavior is driven by how people feel and think, so emotional fitness is critical to being an effective leader.
We often promote leaders based on their technical skills or deep subject matter expertise, without being equipped with the ‘human skills’ required to achieve outcomes through others. This can be stressful for them and their teams. So, it’s essential that leaders accompany their teams on their journey to build the foundational emotional fitness skills in self-management, empathy, and collaboration and then build the specific emotional fitness skills required in leadership.

In our emotional fitness extension program called ‘Boost’, leaders learn and practice applying emotional fitness skills to manage and lead their team. For example, how to have coaching conversations that actually lift performance, address underperformance in a way that turns the situation around, and develop high performers to grow and succeed and become leaders themselves.

Are there some tips and tricks for those who can’t get professional help or don’t have support in their workplace? What can anyone do to “upgrade” their emotional fitness? 

The Kleu emotional fitness program is underpinned by extensive modern psychology research. It includes Emotional Intelligence (EI) and Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). So, finding books, podcasts, or videos on these topics is a good start. From a practical perspective, there are three tips I can share. 

  1. Six seconds is all it takes for the thinking part of the brain to catch up to the emotional response. So, in an emotional situation, count to 6 and take six deep breaths before responding. This will help you avoid doing or saying things you later regret.
  2. Practice putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. In any situation, imagine being the other person and think about what they might be feeling, thinking, and wanting as an outcome. Most importantly, think about how they might be experiencing you.
  3. Get curious. Start asking curious questions when interacting with people rather than assuming or ‘telling’. Start with shifting from ‘how are you?’ to ‘how are you feeling’ and watch what a different type of response you get, then keep asking ‘why’ questions. You’ll be amazed how interactions change. 

Hopefully, the events of the past few months will direct more attention towards mental health and emotional intelligence. What is your vision – or perhaps a wish – for a transformation of workplaces in this regard?

My vision is for workplaces to become communities where people flourish, emotionally and physically. This requires a mindset shift from the top, where valuing and investing in people and relationships becomes a priority, informing strategy, decision-making, and budgeting. The companies that do this well have higher earnings per share (EPS) and grow faster and more sustainably than those that don’t. It’s not just the right thing to do; it makes smart business sense.

My wish is that workplaces will choose to equip their people with the fundamental human skills required not only for the future of work but needed for better social cohesion and emotional health in the community.

Linda Simonsen

photo of Linda Simonsen

Linda is the founder & CEO of Kleu, a digital business that provides emotional body armor for employees on the front line. She is an accomplished entrepreneur, having founded her first business in recruitment and HR consulting FuturePeople at the age of 28, which she grew to ~$20M annual revenue over 15 years.

FuturePeople pioneered Heartonomics® as a game-changer for organizations seeking to enhance performance by leveraging emotions in the workplace. Linda received recognition for technology innovation and best practice on a global scale before shifting her focus in 2018 to bring her vision for Kleu to life.

She is on a mission to elevate emotional health on the global agenda as a sustainability movement, equally important as physical health. She focuses on workplaces as the channel to drive social change. Kleu has been recognized globally as a game-changer for businesses and the economy to recover from Covid-19.

Linda is an impassioned speaker, mentor, and executive coach. She frequently appears in C-level publications such as The CEO Magazine and INTHEBLACK. Linda is a member of The Entrepreneurs Organisation (EO) and Alumni of The CEO Institute, is Tertiary qualified in HR and Psychology, and an accredited Emotional Intelligence (EI) Coach.

She has held several Board positions and is a member of FormingImpact; a community of purpose-driven entrepreneurs who have been hand-picked to collaborate with Sir Richard Branson on his private island.

Linda is an Aussie who got ‘stranded’ in Cyprus with her 11-year-old son in November 2020 and has decided to make this the European Headquarters for Kleu.

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