Article: Mental health awareness a vital leadership skill as 'change starts at the top'

Employee Engagement

Mental health awareness a vital leadership skill as 'change starts at the top'

Three most important things that support mental health in the workplace are psychological safety, meaningful relationships, and meaningful work and leaders are key to this as they are fitted to influence all these aspects, say industry experts.
Mental health awareness a vital leadership skill as 'change starts at the top'

The most impactful aspects of high-performing teams are the physical and mental well-being of their members. To deliver at optimal levels, team members not only need, but also expect a sustainable and emotionally healthy workplace.

Research has shown that employees who talk openly about their mental health at work demonstrate reduced stress levels and increased confidence and productivity.

It, therefore, becomes imperative for leaders to have the necessary awareness and empathy about mental health.

“They need to create an environment where employees are not hesitant to talk about issues impacting their mental wellbeing. More importantly, they need to erase stigmas surrounding mental health by openly discussing this topic with team members. This can create an enabling culture which leads to an enriching work environment and sustainable performance,” says Madhavi Lall, MD, head-HR India at Deutsche Bank.

Three most important things that support mental health in the workplace are feeling psychological safety, meaningful relationships and meaningful work and Raj Karunakaran, HR head, Cargill South Asia says leaders play a key role in that they can influence all these.

“When leaders create psychological safety at workspace, employees feel that their voice is welcomed. They can raise concerns, pitch ideas, or even make mistakes without unnecessary repercussions. Its invaluable for organisations to create a psychologically safe environment as it can directly improve team work, increase innovation, enable fast learning and quick iterations. Hence it is key that leaders have the skills to satisfy the team's need to feel safe, belong and contribute in the workplace,” he adds.

“Change starts at the top,” notes Shefali Sharma Garg, vice president, people strategy, Publicis Sapient, adding that all leaders should walk the talk in comprehending the mental health of their people. The notion of being supported and understood by leaders is the first step in developing a mental health culture within an organisation.

Yashmi Pujara, CHRO at technology company CACTUS, says while having an Employee Assistance Programme is now a must-have, leaders being able to talk about mental health challenges go a long way in breaking the stigma that surrounds mental health, and towards building an inclusive environment.

How can leaders identify mental health challenges for their employees?

Employees suffering from mental health issues may display changes in behaviour, reduced productivity or uncharacteristic withdrawal at the workplace or at social events. However, there may be other subtle changes too and these may not be easily identifiable.

“It is therefore extremely critical for leaders to create an open environment that doesn’t stigmatise but openly discusses mental health problems. Along with this, organisations should have a framework that underscores the importance of confidentiality. Managers should be able to build trust with their team members and display the necessary compassion and empathy. They should be aware that it is not about providing an immediate solution, but about listening carefully to what is being said, without intending to lead the conversation or offer advice,” says Lall.

Preeti Malhotra, practice head- wellness and partnerships, Great Place to Work(R) India, says it is important to be more observant about any behavioural changes that they see in their people and show an interest in trying to understand the reason for those changes. "If employees know and believe that their leaders are approachable and genuinely care for their wellbeing, it has a multiplier impact on their engagement and also going the extra mile for the organisation."

As per Garg, normalising the conversation around mental health will help to remove stigma – and this can only be achieved when leaders are aware and fully engaged. At Publicis Sapient, all leaders are expected to meet co-workers on a weekly basis as part of their O3s (one-on-ones) to establish personal connections and discuss their feelings, challenges, ambitions, goals, or growth.

“Our Mental Wellbeing Ambassadors (MWAs) programme comprises a network of compassionate listeners who understand mental health and provide support, guidance to our people through the Internal Anonymous Helpline. They are professionally trained by a respected wellbeing training partner to listen without judgement and lead our people in the direction of expert aid, while keeping everything discussed strictly confidential,” she adds.

An experiential session for the leadership through the Enablement of Leaders Workshop creates a safe place for the leadership to communicate their issues, thoughts, feelings, and opinions. This helped leaders and teams endure tough emotions and become more resilient, she adds.

“Our thematic campaigns on wellness, emotional intelligence plug-ins in all programs, vox page– are just a few things to name–create awareness and equip our leaders to anchor conversations around mental wellbeing,” says Garg.

Along with leaders, it is important to build these skills at different levels within organisations.

Deutsche Bank is doing just that by expanding its team of mental health first aiders. These staff members are trained to identify and provide early intervention in case they come across colleagues who may be affected by mental health issues. They then guide employees to available resources within the organisation for more professional help.

Karunakaran feels mental health challenges like depression, loneliness etc can be an abstract concept that you cannot touch or see.

Hence it is important for leaders to grasp the importance of mental health challenges and develop an intuitive sense of what these challenges look and feel like as all of us experience it to some degree. One does not need to fully understand it like an expert, but you can strive to understand it in the way a fitness coach assesses a sports person.  

“Leaders are not expected to diagnose and cure mental health challenges but they can develop a skill to assess the issues in their team. As a leader, the best approach to identify the mental health challenges is to take time to get to know and understand their people, their feelings and emotions. Starting a meeting by genuinely asking 'how are you doing?' -  will help leaders to know and understand their people, their feelings and emotions – and identify any mental health challenges. They can then provide support by connecting the employees to Employee Assistance Programs or take actions to eliminate conditions at the workplace that elevates these issues,” he adds.

A key competency a leader must process is to acknowledge that mental health challenges exist and talk about it with compassion, says Karunakaran.

“By speaking up and being more open about mental health challenges, by sharing their own examples or experiences, they can set a healthy example for others to speak out as well. By talking about it, leaders can normalise the topic, destigmatise it and help alleviate the impact it has,” he adds.  

How can leaders balance compassion for employees going through a mental health challenge with accountability for individual responsibilities?

Compassion and accountability go hand-in-hand and striking a balance between the two is crucial for creating a work environment where people can thrive. This is often called the golden zone where leaders drive high accountability with empathy and compassion. They set clear expectations and boundaries, give affirmative and positive feedforward regularly and constantly foster open and empathetic dialogue with individuals about what is working and what is not, from all perspectives.

“To support individuals going through mental health challenges, leaders can assure effective solutions such as flexible working hours, work environments, authentic conversations with an increased focus on mental health. Determining what inspires them is, thus, the most important consideration for a leader. The gap between mental health difficulties and personal accountability can be bridged by setting attainable goals and by just being empathetic, compassionate and mindful.  organisations/leaders need to start working towards building psychological safe spaces for individuals to thrive in them,” says Garg.  

“We don't have to choose between compassion and accountability. Rather, we should create conditions that promote them both,” she adds.

How can leaders work to create a culture of connection and psychological safety?

Karunakaran suggests the following ways for leaders to create a culture of connection and psychological safety:

Listen with empathy – instead of listening to win or listening to fix, leaders can practice listening to fully understand and unlock new perspectives, listen to comprehend and empathise with the employees.

Speak last – the skill to hold their opinion to themselves until everyone has spoken provides leaders with the authentic and unbiased thoughts of the team, and it provides team members with the feeling that they are heard.

Invest in personal connections – leaders need to allow themselves to be vulnerable, strive to be relatable by sharing their own experiences, show curiosity to hear others stories to build connections that are safe, personal, and teamwide so employees feel connected to their leaders and organisation.

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Topics: Employee Engagement, Leadership, #Well-being, #MentalHealth

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