On a scale of 1 – 10, with 1 being ‘calm & in control’ and 10 being ‘just about hanging in there’, how are you feeling today? This is a topic that Directors on our Virtual Programme on Confidence have been exploring recently. When we feel out of control it undermines our confidence, our resilience and our ability to deliver. And yet, time after time, leaders are left struggling to deliver mounting workloads with too few resources, unreasonable timescales and little recognition for the success they achieve.
It’s been Mental Health Awareness Week here in the UK and there have been many heart-rending stories shared via LinkedIn of the difficult experiences and tragic outcomes that poor mental health can bring. Many people have also shared the commitment their organisations show to supporting mental well-being.
It’s encouraging to see this discussion come to the fore and it is much-needed, but I see that there is still too little meaningful action taken to address one of the primary causes of poor mental health – the unhealthy workplace.
This is a tough, tough topic for business leaders and won’t be easily resolved. It feels like uncertainty, complexity and pace are increasing exponentially and businesses must strive to keep up and stay viable. And of course, it isn’t ‘the businesses’ that are making the big commercial decisions, it’s the human leaders within them. Leaders do not set out to under-resource their organisations, or to put people under unreasonable pressure. The reality is, however, feeding the needs of the business all too often means that this is exactly what happens. Too often, human beings are seen as a limitlessly elastic resource that can be stretched and stretched and stretched. And human beings, with their desire to deliver, to meet expectations and their fears of failing, comply with being stretched, and stretched, and stretched.
But this stretching isn’t without consequence – happiness, personal life, satisfaction all get depleted. Being constantly stretched impacts mental health. Something has to give and too often it’s the things that really make life worth living that go. I know this from personal experience in senior corporate roles and I know it today in the coaching conversations I have with leaders.
No-one wants this situation and few really know how to change it. Individuals feel caught up and powerless. Organisations are fighting to survive and thrive.
In the 1990s, two of my former colleagues researched the impact of, and resolution for, stress in organisations. In their book “Energizing the Workplace: A Strategic Response to Stress” (James & Arroba, 1999), they shared an impactful example. In this case, an organisation showed deep commitment to bringing down stress levels. They implemented many solid, proven strategies to help do this. One year on, they researched the levels of stress across the business and – shockingly – these had gone up. How could this have happened? Exploring the reasons, my colleagues unearthed two primary factors. Firstly, the underlying causes of stress – impossible workloads and difficult relationships – had not been addressed. This impacted the second cause of stress. Faced with the same stressful situations, but with so many support mechanisms having put in place, individuals felt they could no longer express how stressed they were, so they bottled it up and felt more alone than ever.
Resolving this situation isn’t easy. But it becomes easier if we work at a causal level rather than putting in place remedial action.
According to the Health & Safety Executive, UK, the primary causes of work-related stress are: impossible demands, lack of control, inadequate support, negative relationships, unclear role and too much change (https://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/causes.htm).
This list won’t surprise anyone and every leader reading this will strive every day to overcome these for their teams and to manage them for themselves, I know. So, what really needs to change? What can you do as a leader to make a meaningful difference for yourself and the people you lead.
This is a big topic and my email is already getting longer than it should be. But stick with me for just a few paragraphs because I’ll share what I have seen work time after time.
1. Creating an environment for better mental well-being is a culture shift, it is not a set of initiatives. The culture that supports mental well-being is one where people feel valued, respected and heard. It is one where they know what is expected of them and where they have regular, meaningful conversations that enable them to deliver. Of course, this kind of culture shift takes time, but the next action taken early on in the change journey will bring big results quickly.
2. People need to have open, honest conversations. They must know it is safe to ask questions and raise concerns. They must know their boss will respond constructively and supportively each and every time.
3. For bosses to respond constructively and supportively each and every time, they have to know they can have open, honest conversations with their boss too. Power dynamics impact at every level, and one undermining or negative comment from your boss – no matter how senior you are – will reverberate across the teams you lead.
4. To give this level of constructive, supportive engagement, leaders must have a high level of self-awareness and the ability to self-manage too. The primary area where leaders must build self-awareness is to know and understand their fears. They must manage their fears so that they can replace them with confidence. Fear distorts. Confidence empowers.
This clear and direct link between leaders’ confidence, their ability to communicate constructively and the culture that this creates has been apparent to me throughout the 33 years of my career. Equally, however, has the direct link between leaders’ fear, their tendency to blame and criticise, and the culture that this creates.
As we come to the end of Mental Health Awareness Week, I acknowledge that mental well-being is impacted by many different factors, and not all the individual experiences shared on LinkedIn came down to company culture, communication or a leader’s confidence. However, stress, burnout and mental ill-health driven by difficult relationships, lack of engagement and impossible job demands most certainly do.
If you would like to explore this topic further, please join my webinar on 9th June. Just reply to this email and I will send you the registration details.
And, this week more than ever, observe yourself and others with interest and learning, not with criticism and judgement.