By: Dr. Victoria Rodriguez, LMSW, MPA
BeWELL Psychotherapy. Psychotherapy in NYC.
After nearly a year of dealing with a global pandemic, months of political and social unrest, and continued uncertainties, organizational leaders find themselves in a unique and challenging position to lead in a way that not only ensures organizational success but also ensures the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of their teams. Leaders must recognize the significance of their role in creating a work environment that can positively or negatively impact their employees’ overall physical and mental health.
The American Psychological Association (APA) deems pandemic related stress will lead to a national mental health crisis that will continue for years past the pandemic; signifying the importance of leaders to normalize investing in mental health to ensure employee well-being and optimal productivity. A leader’s role is, first, to ensure that they stay emotionally healthy to lead successfully and, second, to create a company culture invested in its employees’ mental health that provides their team the resources they need to do their job successfully.
The Importance of Mental Health in Leadership
Successful leaders have high emotional intelligence, the ability to communicate effectively and authentically, model positive behaviors, build connections, think innovatively, and adapt to the needs of those they lead. Where these skillsets have historically assisted in organizational success and higher employee satisfaction, leaders now must think outside of the box and link them to creating an environment that promotes mental wellness and overall well-being.
Research conducted by The Harris Poll for the APA found that nearly 8 in 10 adults (78%) listed the pandemic as a significant source of stress, while 42% of employed persons reported high-stress levels. Leaders, like those they lead, are stressed. In this season, leaders can find themselves overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, burnt out, and exhausted because of stressors they are attempting to manage in their own lives and the workplace. Additionally, those in helping professions may find themselves experiencing higher levels of compassion fatigue. Leaders find themselves in a place where they not only need to manage their level of stress effectively; they need to manage the stress of others and lead through it all. This dual management can add additional stress and impact the leader’s bandwidth and ability to lead clearly and effectively.
Ways to take Care of Your Personal Mental Health as a Leader
Before leaders can even begin to promote a company culture invested in mental health, they must first take an honest look at their own mental wellness. As a leader, you cannot effectively lead if you are half empty. You cannot effectively provide empathy to others if you cannot give it to yourself. You must model the importance of investing in mental health and break your stigmas. If you are not taking care of your mental health, you will not entirely create the space for others and model the behaviors necessary to have your employees want to invest in theirs. Pull from your emotional intelligence, use self-awareness, and recognize the importance of investing in your mental health.
Where the individual journey of each leader may be different given variations in work and life circumstances and skillsets, there are general things that leaders can do to invest and better their mental health. To better your mental health, as a leader, you should:
- Acknowledge your feelings and recognize when you need space. If something feels off, stress is high, or you are feeling burnt out, acknowledge it. Recognize when you need to take a step back and review your life-work balance to ensure that you can continue to show up and lead your team effectively.
- Recognize your trigger points. Recognizing trigger points stems deeply from self-awareness and seeing trends in entities within your routine or life that trigger additional anxiety. With recognizing these triggers, it is potentially easier to identify what coping strategies to implement to limit stress, manage burnout, and improve mental wellness.
- Open up about your mental health. Leaders may perceive that as a leader, they must always be mentally strong and courageous. Where these are two characteristics that leaders may possess, leaders are human. Showing vulnerability and opening up about your mental health journey helps individual healing and aids in building rapport with employees who may relate to your authenticity and vulnerability.
- Take care of yourself physically to ensure mental wellness—eat, sleep, move/exercise. Ensuring your basic needs are met sets the stage for you to go into potentially stressful situations with more emotional bandwidth and mental resiliency.
- Set yourself up for success in your routines. Create healthy habits and boundaries. Determine what you can offset to other leaders or team leads. Share the work that can be shared if your schedule will not allow you to do it all. Find accountability partners.
- Have go-to coping strategies to deal with feeling overwhelmed (e.g., list of affirmations, meditation/prayer, breathing). Find strategies that work for you.
- Do not withdraw or isolate. Turn to friends, family, or community. Ask for and accept help. Share your story and what is on your mind with people you trust.
- Seek professional help through individual therapy, group therapy, or support groups. Seeking out a therapist is a strength, not a weakness.
The importance of Leaders Creating a Healthy Environment for Those They Lead
Employees struggling with mental health concerns can be less productive, have higher absentee rates, make fewer contributions, and make poorer decisions. Leaders must regard their employees’ health as an essential and necessary entity for company success. When employees see the investment that their leadership is making toward their mental health, they may have an increased sense of loyalty, respect, and trust toward the organization, further limiting stress and increasing productivity.
How to Support Mental Health and Create a Healthy environment for those you Lead
Studies have identified health-specific leadership approaches that leaders can implement to improve mental health and create a healthy work environment for their employees. These health-specific leadership approaches include promoting health education and communication, guiding employees to healthy behaviors, showing the importance of mental health, building awareness, and including prevention and intervention resources.
Where each organization may have different needs and interventions specialized to fit their organization, there are general things that leaders can do to invest and better the mental health of their employees. To better the mental health of your employees, as a leader, you should:
- Break Stigmas. Normalize talking and investing in mental health. In recognizing that everyone operates differently, use an empathic approach to your team and normalize what they may or may not experience. Begin discussions in the workplace. Talk with your team and create open dialogs amongst team members. Speak up about your own experiences. Model behaviors that you want your employees to follow around investing in their mental health.
- Listen to your team. Create a space for people to speak about their struggles and mental health concerns via check-ins, one-on-one conversations, or surveys. In these meetings and interactions, remain open and build connections. Do not make assumptions about your employees’ issues or needs.
- Track feedback. Recognizing your employees’ mental health trends can help you understand and assess where problems lie and what resources might work best for your team. Tracking will allow you to make proper decisions and develop plans that will work specifically for those you lead.
- Provide resources. Take feedback to create and coordinate mental health resources within the workplace that employees can easily access. Examples include regular mental health check-ins, ensuring employees have access and coverage for therapy services, mental health workshops, or implementing an EAP program in your workplace. Resources can extend beyond those that are directly related to mental health and connect to those areas that are impacting mental wellness, including ensuring employees have enough space and time to do their job, that they are not overworked, that they take their PTO, and that they feel they have room to freely come to you with any concerns that might be impacting their health. Both breaking stigmas and providing resources empowers employees to act.
From a business perspective, investing in your teams’ emotional and mental health will create higher organizational success. From a leadership perspective, it is the leader’s responsibility to create a positive and healthy work environment. Take on that responsibility in a meaningful way for those you lead.
For more information check out the replay of our “The Importance of Mental Health in Leadership” seminar.
American Psychological Association. (2020). Stress in America: A National Mental Health Crisis. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2020/10/stress-mental-health-crisis#:~:text=Stress%20in%20AmericaTM%202020,faces%20is%20overwhelming%20to%20them.
Boehm, S.A., Baumgartner, M.K., & Kreissner, L.M. (2016). The Relationship Between Leadership and Health: A Comparison of General Health-Focused Leadership Approaches. Healthy at Work. Retrieved from: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-32331-2_7#:~:text=Positive%20health%2Drelated%20outcomes%20of,2008).
Bonnici, R. (2019). Business Leaders Must Open Up About Our Own Mental Health. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/executive-s-open-journey/201904/business-leaders-must-open-about-our-own-mental-health
Eastwood, B. (2019). The Five Common Qualities All Leaders Have in Common. Northeastern University Graduate Programs. Retrieved from: https://www.northeastern.edu/graduate/blog/top-5-leadership-qualities/
Greenwood, K. & Krol, N. (2020). 8 Ways Managers Can Support Employees’ Mental Health. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2020/08/8-ways-managers-can-support-employees-mental-health