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Leadership and Mental Health: The Importance of Taking Care of Your Team

Our blogs this month have focused on mental health in the workplace and how companies can better support their employees’ emotional wellness. This week we’ll discuss how leaders and managers can look after their own mental health so they can thrive and be positive role models for the rest of the organization. Read on for my thoughts on the importance of mental health leadership, how we can prioritize our own mental health, and ways we can encourage our teams to do the same.

How I’m focusing on my mental health.

As a leader, I’ve definitely found it challenging this past year and a half to model healthy behaviors when it comes to mental health. In March 2020, our organization merged with another company. Needless to say, bringing two companies together in the midst of a pandemic was incredibly consuming and stressful.

As a result, throughout 2020, I was not great at taking time for myself. While I encouraged my employees to take the time they needed—from paid time off to mental health days—I couldn’t seem to follow my own advice. Knowing what I know now, I wish I would have taken some time to step away, relax, and recover from everything going on versus being “on” all the time.

Fast forward to 2021, and I’m happy to report that I have made some positive changes:

  • No more grab-and-go. About three months ago, I shifted my morning routine from grab-and-go to taking the time to cook and eat a full breakfast. While I still grab-and-go on occasion, more often than not, I make myself an egg scramble and take the time to enjoy it before rushing into the day. My go-to breakfast is a two-egg, asparagus, spinach, smoked salmon, and goat cheese with hot sauce omelet!
  • Slowing down and stocking up. I’ve learned that the simple things in life help the world slow down. Starting this spring, I’ve made it a routine to go to my local farmer’s market on Sunday to shop for fresh, organic products. I often make a nice dinner Sunday evening with what I bought. The act of slowing down and just walking through the market has been a great stress buster for me.
  • Tweaking my sleep routine. I’ve always been a very early riser. I typically wake between 4:45 and 5:00 AM most mornings—but I don’t always go to bed early enough to compensate. This year I have been much better at turning things off and settling in around 9:30 PM. A regular sleep schedule and routine is paramount to my mental health.

Here are some other things you can do to support your mental health to be an effective leader for your team.

Rein in the hours.

It’s natural for leaders to want to do everything they can to make the organization successful, which usually translates to long hours. But continuously burning the candle at both ends isn’t sustainable and can actually make you less productive. In fact, a 2014 Stanford University study found that productivity per hour declines sharply when a person works more than 50 hours a week.

As a leader, you know that you are going to put in the necessary hours get the job done—that is never the question. However, sometimes shutting down in the early afternoon can make all the difference when you know you are going to work a few additional hours on the weekend getting ready for the new week. Further, by starting my day early—typically at 7:00 AM—it is very easy to close things down between 4:00 and 5:00 PM and not feel any need to open my laptop at night.

Set clear boundaries.

Just like we’ve been urging employees, leaders need to set boundaries around work and life, too. For example, leaders should block time on their calendars for exercise, meditation, or family commitments.

Take mental health days.

Be sure to reflect this in your out-of-office reply. For example, something as simple as, “I am taking a mental health day to focus on some self-care” can resonate with employees and empower them to do the same.

Make time to get outside.

Just stepping outside to get a breath of fresh air during the workday has immediate benefits. Better yet, a short walk around the block can do wonders for renewed focus. If you’re in the office, suggest a walking meeting with someone.

Adopt a mindfulness practice.

Research shows that when we practice mindfulness, we gain greater wisdom and leadership competence.1 Mindfulness can also make us more empathetic. According to Matthias Berk, “one of the most important advantages of meditation is that it allows us to step out of our own survival-centric thinking and connect with others empathetically.”

Practice self-compassion.

It’s no secret that many leaders are incredibly hard on themselves. But if we want employees to lose their perfectionist tendencies, we have to role model the right behaviors. This includes letting go of self-criticism, celebrating successes, reframing setbacks, and taking care of ourselves physically with good nutrition and sleep.

How the organization can support mental health.

Once you’ve adopted some of the behaviors to care for your own mental health, how do you demonstrate to employees that the company truly cares about their mental health?

At WebMD Health Services, we’ve done a few things:

  • We leaned into time off. In addition to encouraging people to take PTO, we had a few “early release days” during the summer where we encouraged people to log off early. For example, before Labor Day weekend, people were encouraged to log off at 2:00 PM.
  • We created a sense of community. To counteract many hours on video, we encouraged teams to meet safely in parks, have a picnic, or go on a hike. We also participated in some events to bring our communities across the country together, like Hood to Coast, the Indiana Corporate Challenge, and Carry The Load.
  • We acknowledge the stress of world events. I think it’s important for our mental health to recognize the turmoil, stress, and strife in the world over the past year and a half. Every two weeks, we hold company-wide “TGIF meetings.” I try to talk about whatever the broader stress may be across our society—whether it’s something going on socially, with COVID-19, or even weather events that impact our employees and clients. We have staff all over the United States, and I think it’s essential as a leader to talk about things that may not be going on in our own backyards. By giving those topics a voice, I believe it gives everyone permission to do the same—to open up and to just be human with each other.

Leadership should support the ways managers can promote mental health for their teams, too.

While executive leadership must support mental health at work, it’s also critical that mid-level managers feel empowered to help their teams with mental health concerns. This is because they’re more likely to be the first person at work to notice any struggles or impacts that mental health is having on their group. Here are a few ways that leadership can help managers promote mental health in the workplace:

Equip managers with tools.

Most managers don’t have mental health training, so it’s essential to give them the resources to help an employee who may reach out to them for support. A managers’ toolkit can include tips for how to talk about mental health in the workplace, how to recognize when people are struggling, a one-pager on the mental health benefits available, or a card they can hand out with the phone number of the Employee Assistance Program.

Encourage sharing.

A recent Harvard Business Review article noted that the best leaders are sharers. Sharing our own struggles with mental health—or that of a loved one—can encourage others to open up about their experiences and help build a culture of compassion in the organization. Videos and company-wide meetings are two forums where this kind of storytelling works well. You can also take a moment to note special events—like World Mental Health Day, which happens every year on October 10.

Create awareness about the programs you offer.

Too often, employees will say, “Oh, I wish I had known about Benefit XYZ!” Ensure you actively communicate about the valuable resources you offer—like EAPs, childcare assistance, family leave, sick leave, and volunteer time off—so managers can also remind their team that this support is available. Employees can’t reap the mental health benefits of these programs unless they use them!

Embed mental health care into meetings.

The more we talk about mental health, the more it becomes normalized. So encourage managers to devote a few meeting minutes upfront by asking people to share how they’re feeling. If people are comfortable speaking up, managers can be in a better position to gauge how their team is doing and if there’s anything they can do to help—even if it’s just offering a bit of empathy and compassion.

Leaders and managers are shouldering a double burden these days. In addition to any personal struggles they may have, they’re often involved in helping team members negotiate mental health concerns and their impact on the team. When leaders focus on their own mental health, they’re better equipped to support their team. And when managers and leaders act as advocates for mental health, employees will be more open and comfortable asking for support. In the end, everyone benefits—from leaders to managers, to employees, and the business.

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