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Making Mental Health a Leadership Priority

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The relentless pace and uncertainty of business today is taking a serious toll on all of us. Leaders might strive to be purpose-driven, impactful and innovative, but they are often hijacked by constant crisis management and the pressure to give everyone a voice. As if that’s not enough, add in the exhaustion of trying to cover the workload of missing colleagues—those infected by Covid and those who left as part of the Great Resignation.

The truth is, many leaders are being weighed down by the cumulative impact of two years in this chaotic environment with its never-ending pivots. And yet, now they are also being asked to actively protect the mental health of their employees and prioritize their well-being. Besides feeling ill-equipped to take on that responsibility, leaders may also be grappling with their own stress.

What’s the solution?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers and I’m not a mental health professional, but I’d like to do my part in helping leaders navigate these trying times. Below you’ll find some tips that may be helpful for those who are working to protect their own mental health, as well as that of their team members.

For Leaders to Protect Themselves

Let go of unrealistic expectations.

Perfection isn’t the goal right now, so consciously let yourself off the hook. Do you really need to produce a 10-page report, or could you share the data in a quick email? Yes, you still have non-negotiable deliverables and deadlines, but ask yourself if there are any unnecessary tasks you could stop doing to take better care of yourself. You may have more control over your calendar than you think.

Stay connected.

During times of chaos, you may feel like you are solely responsible for helping everyone else on your team hold it together. That’s a whole lot of pressure! You need and deserve support too, so don’t try to go it alone. Talk about the unique challenges you are facing with a  trusted advisor or close colleagues. You might even consider what organizational psychologist Adam Grant calls “reciprocity circles”—groups of peers who meet monthly to discuss their struggles and brainstorm on solutions. And if you need help, don’t hesitate to talk with a professional.

Compartmentalize your “worry time.”

Some people find it cathartic to think through the worst-case scenario and create a detailed contingency plan. If you are one of those people, I get it. But also spend some time developing a plan for the most probable outcome. Set aside a day and time when you can give that kind of planning your full attention. Once you get it finished, stop rehashing it in your mind. Focus all of your energy on getting positive results. And if that doesn’t work out, you’ll know exactly what to do.

For Leaders to Support Their Team Members

Know your company’s mental health benefits and resources.

Educate yourself on what type of support your company offers and how to access those benefits. When one of your employees is experiencing mental health issues, they may not have the bandwidth to wade through the system and figure it out. You can encourage them to get the help they need by providing a clear roadmap.

Model what it means to protect your mental health.

Your attitudes and actions can help to destigmatize mental health concerns. Let your team know what steps you are taking to protect your own mental health and encourage them to do the same. Perhaps you mention that you’ve been feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, so you are taking a day of vacation to spend with your family. Or maybe you don’t schedule meetings after 5:00 because you want to maintain a healthy work/life balance. When you set that example, you are giving your team members “permission” to prioritize their own mental health and make smart choices to protect it.

Keep the lines of communication open.

Now, more than ever before, it’s critical to create an open line of dialogue with your team members—about their work, their well-being, and their challenges. (Hint:  Try to listen more than you talk.) You might consider more frequent one-on-one check-ins, daily huddles, or virtual “open office hours.” With that said, be intentional about your communication. Don’t bombard them with emails and meetings. In fact, you might even institute an occasional “no meetings day” so employees can catch up on work and catch their breath.

Modify your expectations when appropriate.

I know. Sometimes this isn’t an option (quality control!). But there may be instances when you can revisit workloads and performance expectations to help employees reduce their stress. If they are already working long hours and skipping lunch, they probably won’t be thrilled if you also sign them up for resiliency training. That’s just something else they have to juggle. Instead, explore ways to help them reduce unnecessary tasks and eliminate any redundancies.

Help employees find meaning in their work.

When people have clear goals and are genuinely connected to their purpose, they experience less stress. Find out what motivates your employees. Have conversations with them about their career aspirations. What types of development or experiences would better prepare them to meet their goals? If you take an active role in supporting them along that journey, you can help to elevate their outlook, their confidence, and their mental health.

The bottom line here? Mental health really matters. For companies, for leaders, and for employees. It’s impossible to know what 2022 is going to throw at us. If this year is anything like its two predecessors, we all need to buckle up for a bumpy ride. But if we can take deliberate steps to prioritize mental health as part of our leadership objectives, we can give our team members a distinct advantage as they face a continuing environment of adversity and uncertainty. The broader impact of those actions can be significant for our companies. When healthy, mentally strong minds pull together to achieve big goals, the odds of success are exponentially higher.

What successful strategies have you used to help protect the mental health of your employees? I’d love to hear about them.

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