Leaders should care about mental health (including their own)
Books on nearly every aspect of leadership crowd the management section in bookstores. Yet, hardly any of these publications deal with the capacity of leaders to support mental health in the workplace. Nothing prepares a leader for how to respond when a team member quietly talks about being swept away in a wave of depression.
One in five adults experiences a diagnosable mental illness in any given year. Of these, more than half will go untreated. The economic impact is immense, and the human costs are devastating. Mental health issues are happening at every socioeconomic and professional level, from low wage workers to CEOs.
Although work in itself supports psychological well-being, the workplace, in fact, poses many risks to our mental health: we may be doing work beyond our capacity or skills, with too few resources or simply not enough time to do what (we believe) is expected. We may be experiencing workplace bullying or be working in a flat-out toxic environment.
If the build-up of stress manifests itself in physical ways, we know how to seek help. Few of us have trouble asking to go home with a migraine. But when it comes to talking about burn-out, depression, or anxiety, we are hesitant to broach the topic with our friends, let alone with those in charge of our careers. This leaves us alone with our struggles and delays or prevents us from wanting or feeling able to seek help.
Leaders play a big role in creating the type of environment that promotes mental and emotional well-being and in making it safe to discuss this topic in the workplace. What are some of the things they could be doing?
1. Truly care about your employees
Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace poll found that only 40 percent of employees felt that someone at their job cares about them as a person. Being seen as a mere “human resource” rather than an individual full of life, love, emotions, worries, and joys leads to feelings of loneliness. Research shows that people who feel isolated at work have the highest level of workplace stress.
Leaders need to spend time with their people — having regular one-on-one meetings where it’s not only about work but about employees’ families and what is keeping them up at night. Spending time together at a personal level makes it easier to talk about potential stressors or broader mental health concerns.
This requires leaders to let go of being careful in their interactions with team members. In these discussions, it is not about holding back, being nice, and saying what they believe is socially acceptable. It means becoming truly caring: coming in close, being kind, speaking what is true, and meeting each other with vulnerability.
2. Open up and share your stories of struggle
In the minds of many, mental health issues are associated with weakness, and the stigma of being labeled “mentally ill” is often as big a burden as the condition itself. Great leaders who want to reduce the stigma can set the culture by sharing their own stories of struggles.
In fact, there are many iconic leaders (as well-known as Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, and Princess Diana) who suffered from mental health conditions. Research by Nassir Ghaemi, a professor of psychiatry, not only proves that people suffering from a mental health illness can be great leaders; it also suggests they can make better leaders: “Mania enhances creativity and resilience to trauma, while depression increases realism and empathy.”
Breaking the stigma requires leaders to stop pretending that they have it together all the time, to share the terror, confusion, and despair they themselves may feel at times. By being courageous enough to open up about their own ordeals, they are making it safer for others to share their stories.
3. Model confidence and self-care
Returning to work after a mental illness can be frightening. Often, an employee’s self-esteem and confidence have been affected. They may fear returning too soon, worry about becoming unwell again, or dread facing the potential discrimination from colleagues.
The period surrounding a return to work is a critical time for success. Leaders need to ensure that the employee feels welcomed back in an emotionally safe environment, where it is okay for them to share their mental health experience and to ask for the kind of support they need from their colleagues. Leaders should give their team member the assurance that their career has not ended as a result of their illness.
This requires leaders to role-model self-care themselves. Getting enough sleep and quiet time, exercising, making space for renewal and rest, and being with people they care about shouldn’t be seen as marginal, but as an uncompromising necessity — and at the heart of what allows for great leadership and exceptional work to happen.
As much as we would like to believe it, our psychological and emotional health is not a given, and many of us will experience a mental health issue at some point in our lifetime. Yet if we are met with compassion, we may learn to see that our fragility need not be a weakness, but a way to deepen our connection with others.