In 2010, the United States suffered a doubling in the suicide rate of National Guard soldiers. All branches of the military have seen dramatic increases in suicides over the past eight years. Yet when viewed as a percentage of total service members, this tragedy is most pronounced within the National Guard. This past week, the acting director for the Army National Guard called for solutions to build individual resiliency, not just within the National Guard, but within society as a whole.
So what does this have to do with organizations and leadership? Well, I would hope the leadership answer would be clear. The more connected (personally and professionally) a leader is with her followers, the more likely they pick up on the warning signs of depression.
From an organizational standpoint, there are untapped opportunities to help with this national crisis and to improve on the bottom line, as well. Affinity groups hold real promise for creating community, support mechanism, an increased sense of belonging and infinite feelings of goodwill from employees toward a leadership corps that takes their well-being to heart.
Over the past several years, I have spoken to groups on the value of internal veterans’ affinity groups within companies, industries, or communities of practice. I can’t overstate either the importance of these types of groups or the extent to which most organizations lack them!
For veterans embarking on a career transition at a new company, in addition to the anxiety and excitement most of us have felt on that first day, there is tremendous cultural apprehension. They have left an environment of intense camaraderie, built through often intense and harrowing common experiences, and they are entering a culture typically unable to relate to their military heritage.
What if, in addition to regular on-boarding, organizations were able to welcome veterans with an invitation to connect to other former service members as well? What if newly arrived veterans were paired up with a veteran mentor for the first year of their employment, after which point they themselves would become a mentor to other veterans?
The Gallup organization is known for their extensive development of one of the only statistically validated employee engagement instruments. One of the key drivers of employee engagement, according to Gallup, is whether or not an employee has a best friend in the organization. Why is that? Because close friendships typically include areas of similar interest, life philosophies, or a commonality of shared experiences.
Ask any veteran and they’ll verify an emotional connectedness whenever they discover other veterans in a crowded room or sitting beside them in a cubicle farm. While they may not be (or become) best friends, there is a common respect and an understanding of what the other has been through that pervades their interactions. Why wouldn’t organizations actively seek to promote the establishment of such bonds between employees? Indeed, why couldn’t similar affinity mechanisms be created only around veterans?
In an era of social media and a growing importance of connectivity in society and within organizations, leaders would be wise to tap into the many natural and inexpensive ways to nurture these types of social connections. In doing so, they could leverage internal engagement tendencies, while simultaneously helping to address growing societal issues such as suicide amongst some of the most loyal and self-less employees we have, our National Guard citizen-soldiers.