The Role Of Leadership In Supporting Mental Health & Well-Being In The Workplace

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In today’s fast-paced and often disrupted work environment, mental health and overall wellness can’t be avoided. It demands attention from employers and employees alike. Essentially, taking care of your own and your team members’ well-being means trying to help them stay in a toward state and switched on where they can function at their best (i.e., avoiding triggering the fight/flight/freeze response that put people in an away state and switch them off). 


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However, if Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2022 report is anything to go by, it would seem that many leaders do not (yet) recognise the importance of mental health and wellbeing. According to the report, 60% of its respondents are emotionally detached at work and 19% are miserable.

Why should leaders care?

There is a strong link between mental and physical health. Stress alone can lead to serious health problems, and it also has a direct impact on mental health. It can lead to depression and anxiety, which come with additional symptoms including headaches, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating.

This then contributes to absenteeism and presenteeism (when employees attend work but are unable to perform at their best due). These issues have a direct impact on individual productivity, team performance, engagement, and overall organisational success. 

Prioritising the mental well-being of our employees has become imperative. When employees are struggling with mental health challenges, such as stress, anxiety, or burnout, their ability to focus, make sound decisions, and collaborate is significantly compromised, i.e., they are switched off.  

The inverse is, of course, also true: Employees who experience positive mental well-being are more likely to feel motivated and engaged at work. They have higher levels of adaptability, resilience, and creativity, enabling them to contribute their best efforts, i.e., they are switched on.

This positive individual performance translates into improved team dynamics. When members experience good mental health, they collaborate more effectively, communicate openly, and support one another. This fosters a positive and productive work environment, which ultimately influences organisational performance.

Understanding and enabling mental health in the workplace 

Mental health – as defined by the WHO – is a “state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realise their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community.” Mental health, together with physical health and social well-being, form the components of overall health.

Mental health in the workplace specifically refers to the mental well-being of employees and the conditions that influence it. It encompasses various factors, including emotional well-being, stress levels, work-life balance, and the overall psychological climate of an organisation. 

If we can equip ourselves with the necessary skills to recognise and support mental health concerns, we can effectively – maybe even proactively – address concerns as or before they arise.

On the one hand, this means focusing on your behaviour to ensure your self-talk and the way you engage others impacts your/their SCARF positively. SCARF is the model developed by Neuroscientist Dr David Rock, explaining the areas that trigger our brains in a positive or negative way.

On the other hand, since you can’t remove all stressful situations and uncertainty from the workplace, it requires building emotional resilience that reduces the negative impact when these areas are triggered:

  • Status: Treating people with dignity and abolishing stigmas around mental health so that team members feel they can ask for help without judgement is paramount. We, as leaders, set the tone for a supportive culture that recognises and values mental health. We can do this by openly discussing and promoting the importance of mental health, by sharing personal experiences, and by creating psychologically safe spaces where others feel free to speak up and seek support. 
  • Certainty: By establishing supportive work environments as described above, and by being open, caring leaders, we can mitigate the anxiety felt by those who feel vulnerable or who worry about job security or future advancement. 
  • Autonomy: By showing trust and allowing for flexibility in how tasks are completed, we can support team members to take ownership of their roles and mental health so that they can perform at their best. 
  • Relatedness: Making an effort to connect and build authentic relationships with those we lead helps them feel like they belong, reducing anxiety and making them more willing to ask for help. By standardising regular check-ins, team meetings, and one-on-one conversations, we have the potential to create supportive and inclusive cultures in our organisations where we can build authentic relationships with our people and foster a sense of belonging.
  • Fairness: Perceived exclusion and unfair treatment is a major contributor to anxiety and requires a concerted effort to ensure everyone feels that their contribution is valued. We have a responsibility to drive the development of fair policies and procedures, provide equal opportunities and address all perceived inequalities and biases – including those related to mental health. This could range from Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), flexible work environments (in terms of time and place of work), guidelines on work-life balance, and access to (internal or external) mental health resources. In addition, we must invest in training programmes (directed at all levels of the organisation) covering emotional and social intelligence, stress management, conflict resolution, and mental health literacy. 

Having a culture and climate that is conducive to overall positive mental well-being in your organisation is no longer a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have. And although having appropriate policies in place is important, we don’t have to wait for this to be formalised to start making a difference.

Demonstrating care and vulnerability daily is already a strong start. 

Suggested Article:

Employee mental health.

Health economists estimate that unaddressed mental health conditions cost the South African economy R161 billion per year due to lost days of work, presenteeism (being at work but unwell), and premature mortality.

 


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