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What leaders can do to support workplace mental health

What leaders can do to support workplace mental health

Mental health and wellbeing are now urgent leadership priorities. Failure to tackle the problems caused by the pandemic isn’t an option for any organisation that wants to do the right thing for its people and also remain productive. With growing incidents of workplace stress, burnout, isolation and loss of engagement, every organisation will have encountered at least some of these issues first hand.

As a leader, you’ll want to know how to manage the on-going challenge of workplace mental health. Yet, despite the widespread stress caused by the pandemic, it can still remain a taboo topic. It is also commonplace to think of mental health as an individual's problem, but research shows there is much that organisations and leaders can do to prevent problems becoming endemic and also to create an environment that helps peoples’ mental health to thrive (Maslach & Leiter 1997).

This article has been written to give you practical takeaways and useful links to make positive changes and raise awareness.

Building wellbeing into your leadership culture

As a leader you can exert powerful influence when it comes to mental health issues. In many respects, you set the tone by your own actions. The more you can do to normalise the issue, the greater the opportunity for awareness and acceptance to grow.

There’s a strong likelihood people will be shouldering more than they should at the moment, you’ll certainly be one of them. A positive approach is to lead by example and open up, perhaps by acknowledging the strain on yourself and others. Research indicates that this type of role modelling can directly reduce levels of burnout in an organisation (Morkevičiūtė & Endriulaitienė 2017). Making it ‘OK to not feel OK’ is a much used term, yet leadership support for this approach gives others the courage to seek help.

You can also help by making wellbeing a talking point in communications and participating in discussions on the topic yourself. Including mental wellbeing questions in employee engagement surveys goes some way to embed awareness.

Adapt your leadership style

Good leaders will know there’s a tone for every occasion. If you are normally an authoritative leader, that might not be appropriate when encouraging others to engage on what is a sensitive topic. Times like these call for your style to be more open and adaptable but at the same time to remain clear and directive. You are still the leader in a crisis after all.

At times of uncertainty, consistency is key. Leaders need to ensure they are accessible and aim to respond to people as quickly as possible. Greater understanding needs to blend with the clarity people still need to stay focused and perform. Combining empathy with direction can be a challenge but research shows us that a stressed and anxious workforce needs to see and hear both styles (Busse & Regenberg 2019).

Supporting a more remote workforce

Working through the pandemic has shown that people can be just as productive when working outside of traditional workplaces. The change is not without mental health pitfalls however. Hybrid and remote based working runs the risk of reduced visibility for many of the mental health issues affecting our organisations.

As a leader you can play your part by being more visible and accessible, joining virtual calls and asking people how they are doing and what they need. You may also find that collaboration with peers, reaching out to other organisations and sharing best practices of what supports better mental health generates many usable ideas.

Look out for burnout

Several weeks into the third UK lockdown the balancing of work and for many, home schooling at the same time, is taking its toll. Burnout - which is chronic work related stress, is now being joined by parental burnout. What’s more, the realities of family structures means that working mothers are more likely to manage parental care and therefore are at higher risk of burnout.

With remote working here to stay for the long-term, leaders have a responsibility to consider the experience of their workers most affected by burnout. You can help manage that by encouraging regular line manager / team member check-ins as those suffering through burnout may not even be aware of their problem or be able to spot the signs (Maslach & Leiter 1997). You might also relax the rules a little in relation to when work gets done. When the home is the workplace, it’s only reasonable that home life has to co-exist with work. Not everything needs to be completed in the conventional 9-5.

We’ve written extensively on the topic of burnout - our article may be of help and give you ideas to share in your organisation.

Take a holistic view

As the pandemic has affected so many aspects of our lives, we need to look at mental health and wellbeing from a broader perspective than purely work related. As a leader you can help by championing mindfulness and mental health first aid all the way through to flexible working policies that reflect home life and awareness of financial wellbeing. Many of the problems outside of work impact work and productivity directly.

The leaders and line managers who are able to emphasise beyond the workplace will be those that pick up on wider issues affecting mental health. Without this understanding, we can’t know who needs help and how to give it.

Look after yourself

Of course, as a leader you may well be experiencing mental health issues and burnout yourself. It’s understandable if your focus on your business and supporting others means you neglect your own needs. So, don’t just check in with your line managers and teams, check in with yourself too. Try to schedule at least some downtime and find someone to talk to.

If you don’t look after your own wellbeing your ability to lead others could become seriously impaired. Your people need certainty in uncertain times - your own mental health plays a big part in ensuring you give that reassurance.

In conclusion

Plenty of research exists that shows widespread stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic. You’ll find the link to the The British Psychological Society COVID resources in the references below expands on this. For those in tune with their people, it’s plain to see. For others, now is the time to step up and better engage with, understand and support staff.

By paying attention to those employees most susceptible to pandemic fatigue and burnout (whatever the cause or origin), leaders can lead on mental health by building more supportive organisations from the inside out.

Further reading

If you want to delve into the big issues facing organisations and their leaders in the coming year, you’ll find our two recent workplace predictions articles of help.

Further help

Our Leadership Development programmes offer inspirational coaching and training to help leaders reach their full potential. At a time when your people are looking to you for the answers, you might benefit from an external perspective.

Find out more: Leadership Development

References and links

Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (1997).The Truth About Burnout: how organizations cause personal stress and what to do about it (First ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Morkevičiūtė, M., & Endriulaitienė, A. (2017).The Role of a perceived Ethical Leadership Style in the Relationship between Workaholism and Occupational Burnout [Article].

Busse, R., & Regenberg, S. (2019).Revisiting the “Authoritarian Versus Participative” Leadership Style Legacy: A New Model of the Impact of Leadership Inclusiveness on Employee Engagement. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 26(4), 510-525.

The British Psychological Society COVID resources.

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