As far as I can recall, every job I have had in my career failed to fully appreciate the concept of ‘mental health’. Sure, there have been previous co-workers and managers who listened to me, supported me when I needed it, and surely escalated issues when required. However, in the moments where life pressures became just purely unbearable and where I needed an outlet at work to talk through the anxiety and find a solution, I failed to find one. I could not find the balance of being open about personal conflict, dealing with work tasks, and still being a productive individual that contributed to my company’s overall mission.
When I was 16, working in my local public library as an AV Helper (assisting patrons to use Microsoft Word and something called the Internet) back in 2004, I dealt with a lot of personal stress. High school loves, family pressures, and being a teenager to name a few. I came into work one day and was glum. My co-worker, who I thought of as a friend, took me aside and said: “You need to stop moping around and get it together. Leave all your personal stress outside those doors, because frankly, no one cares.” And for the next 14 years, that is exactly what I did.
As a society, we condition ourselves not to speak about our worries or stress at the workplace for various reasons.
We may want to keep that part of us private to the working environment. We may not think it is professional to speak about them, or that sharing this side of us may be perceived as weak or suggest we are incapable of handling our workload. Or even worse, that we are incompetent. The truth is there may be a million reasons why not to have mental health conversations.
However, many of us have now seen the impact of COVID-19 and how it has affected friends and colleagues, as well as the anxiety it has created around our own physical safety. While this crisis may not be resolved anytime soon, leaders across organizations can be upfront in discussing how they deal with their day-to-day work pressures, and how they are maintaining a work-life balance that suits their needs. Why is this important? As leaders, we hold a pivotal spot in our organization in terms of setting an example – an old but still prevalent standard to abide by. How do we do that in this day and age?
Lead by empathy. Be vulnerable.
As an emotionally intelligent leader, I use vulnerability as a strength – not a weakness. I draw upon my experiences to forge genuine connections with my teams and acknowledge the low moments that affect my day-to-day. Being open about our insecurities can foster an environment of growth and mutual trust between a leader and their colleagues. Once that trust is established, teams can truly flourish and drive innovation. The defensive armor has been taken off and a bold new working environment is established where people can bring their true selves to work.
I do not want suggest leadership must expose all the skeletons in their personal closet. Rather, my intention is to dispel the cliché of successful leadership being predicated on ego and a façade of invulnerability. It is not the optimal way to engage your team, nor does it create a culture where mental health is perceived in positive manner, now or in the future.
We have seen many examples across industries of senior leadership communicating their support for employees during these tumultuous times. As important as this is, it is even more impactful if a leader shares their own story in relation to mental health and how they have coped. That honesty becomes an instant connection point with employees. By implementing a regular series involving different leaders speaking about their unique narratives, then you can create a space for further meaningful conversations.
Embrace the Change
Creating a culture shift in any organization can be challenging, and this is particularly true when it comes to mental health issues due to their perceived negative associations. It demands more than a one-time conversation if employees are to open up and break down their own internal barriers. For that to be successful, make these conversations a part of team meetings and 1:1s. You can even create mental health ‘office hours’ to truly drive the message home, whereby employees can book 1:1 time to discuss any issues they may have, free from judgement. Leverage existing support channels such as HR and highlight your Employee Assistance Programs where applicable. These are all important steps that can change the overall perception of mental health within your company over a consistent period of time.
The necessity of leadership driven by empathy and understanding has increased over the years and continues to do so. As leaders deliberate on how to create a positive mental health culture within their companies, it is vital to design a blueprint that is not merely tactical for this current pandemic. Create a strategy that is sustainable. Encourage your young leaders to be transparent and imperfect. More importantly, remember that being vulnerable is not a weakness, and we should not suppress our feelings of shame, anxiety, or fear—because it takes away from our joy, our happiness, and our success.