For Mental Health Awareness Week, we asked Agata Zasada a few questions about how she’s navigating mental health during this stage of the pandemic.
In her 13 year career in HR, Agata has rocketed to the executive level thanks to her innovative approach to people practices and challenging the status quo. Her thought leadership in the HR community and countless mentoring conversations each year has allowed Agata to not just impact the lives of those who are lucky enough to be a part of her company, but also inspire an industry to re-think how they approach HR. Agata is currently the Vice President of People & Culture at Bananatag, who in large part thanks to her impactful strategy, has won three major employer awards this past year. Agata is no stranger to contributing to other admired cultures including the Olympics, Lululemon Athletica, Hootsuite, and Spence Diamonds.
What do you enjoy most about being a professional communicator?
Agata: What I love about being a professional communicator is that I get to help people be informed. One of my ethos in life is that if you treat people like adults, they will show up as adults. Adults make really smart decisions when they are informed. They have the information to make the right maneuvers, changes, discussions, and I think as a professional communicator one of the things I value and enjoy is getting information disseminated in an impactful way that is for the audience so they can continue to learn, evolve, and perform.
We’re in the midst of a prolonged crisis and as a result many peoples’ mental health is suffering. Can you share some of the ways Banatag is supporting your communities during this time?
Agata: Mental wellness and mental health has existed beyond our concept of time, this isn’t a new topic, it’s just become more prevalent because of the prolonged crisis, there’s more language and a lot more information in the world. Because people are at home more often, it has provided more time for people to digest information and educate themselves and maybe experience some of these things through reflection.
More now than ever has there been an emergence of external support early in the pandemic. Our product is a form of connection with people. Even though we’re in a very virtual in-home experience, we’re really focused on creating forms of connection and we believe that happens in three ways:
- Physically, how we connect to our environment: our home, our phone.
- One-on-one or one-to-few connections. We use an internal app that pairs colleagues to get to know each other, not just as coworkers but as humans. The more you build friendships and connections, and the safer you feel in your workplace the more likely you are to express yourself and help make others feel safe to express themselves.
- Create communication to keep people informed on various topics, even if the answer is “we don’t know.” It’s not a common approach and what makes us unique is we are always evolving and our intention is to progress forward.
Do you have any tips on how to keep teams actively engaged and supported while working remotely?
Agata: We hired a firm called Trailblaze for leadership development and we brought them in to support us in helping our leaders develop, and because they’re external there’s a level of comfort and safety — it’s our intention for everyone to grow.
Another thing is we actually have been able to continue our events, even though there’s a pandemic, and our level of events has evolved. I think we did a good pilot for Halloween, we did a really aggressive holiday party, we’ve done a virtual Sun Run which extends to our merger company, Staffbase, and just really finding various ways for people to participate in something that is of interest.
You can’t have organic conversations anymore the way you did in an office setting, where you’d go to the coffee machine and see your leader there and say, “hey how’s your day?” and you would organically read their body language and ask questions. We created a structure to simulate as best we can organic situations. So for example, we created 20-minute, twice a week, Ask Me Anythings for opportunities to ask leaders questions around the office.
Organizations need to be comfortable acknowledging the personal space. For example, in the last lockdown, we sent out adult care packages because people were exhausted, and as a company we’ve earned that trust with our employees to let them know we care about them.
The last piece is that some teams look different — some teams are a whole department while some teams are very small — so using an equity lens can be helpful and more widespread. For example, we have one team that does virtual games pretty consistently and another team that once a quarter orders food and has a blast watching a movie together. Whatever works for that team to feel that level of connection is the most important thing. So it’s about letting teams dictate what works for them, which is counter-intuitive to a consistency approach but allows relationships to be organic.
What do you do to protect your own mental health?
Agata: I’m a mother of two, they are in the other room right now, and I just don’t get a break. I’m on my laptop in my room and I’m a parent outside in the other room – it just doesn’t end, there’s no commute to “shut off” and so for my birthday, I asked for a two-night stay by myself at a hotel with books, because I just wanted to shut off. So whatever “break” you need, whether it’s from work or from your family, be bold and find ways to ask for that.
I’ve also taken up exercising, and anyone who knows me pre-pandemic knows I hated exercising, but moving my body since the pandemic started was a way to relieve stress levels. I started running, weight lifting, re-learning new things that I can do. There’s an abundance of time in a way that didn’t exist before, so being a learner and explorer has been big. Also going back to things that brought me joy as a child, like reading and doodling.
Every day getting outside and walking, seeing the world in a different perspective and appreciating nature, rain or shine.
Putting in effort to connect with the people I really want to connect with. My husband and I would go through photos and send photos to our friends and family and see if we can connect and rekindle the connections that are hard now and bring a little joy to someone else’s life.
Do you have any additional advice or recommendations on resources to support mental health for communicators?
Agata: I think there’s a fear that communicators need to have answers and the resources. Sometimes employees just want to be heard, so listening is key. Asking the question, “do you need help? Are you telling me just to share, or what action would you like?” because sometimes they just want to share and simply listening and being authentic is what they need.
Every communicator in a management role should know their organization’s employee assistance program and what’s covered, because sometimes it’s a matter of connecting to the right person sooner.
Visit the IABC/BC Blog for more stories around mental health this week.