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Reassessing the leader’s role when it comes to mental health and wellbeing

By Karen Gately

To say life is challenging right now is an obvious understatement. The reality is a lot of people are facing circumstances and levels of stress they’ve never had to deal with before.  As the weeks and months of isolation roll on some people will inevitably struggle to maintain their mental health. The risk of mental illness impacting scores more people across our community than what is typical is real. 

Leaders face both a great opportunity and challenge in helping people to maintain not only positivity but mental health through what are largely unknown days, weeks or months ahead.  While fear is a natural human response to threat, allowing anxiety or depression to take hold is something that, as a community, we can’t afford to let happen. 

An individual’s wellbeing is deeply influenced by their opportunity to engage positively with other people and earn a living for themselves and their families. So clearly, priority order number one is to work hard to avoid redundancies. As the 2012 World Health Organisation report titled Risks to Mental Health: An overview of vulnerabilities and risk factors’ points out, lost opportunity to gain an education or earn an income are especially significant influencers of mental wellbeing.

Indeed, today’s leader is responsible for more than the work and the worker’s performance. We must appreciate that we are also responsible for supporting our people to become their best.  

Steps every leader can take

As business leaders, what we need is for people to be thinking clearly, trusting one another, taking ownership and collaborating to solve the problems our organisations are facing.  Surviving, let alone thriving, through these times requires every member of your team playing their part.

But being a leader means your role in maintaining a mentally healthy workplace is crucial. Your actions and behaviours set the tone of the rest of the organisation.

Here are some steps all leaders can take during this uncertain time:

  • Work hard to stay connected. Spend time every day talking to people one to one or in groups. Don’t assume just because members of the team are introverted and enjoying the opportunity to get on with work without interruptions, that they don’t also need to be in contact with their manager and colleagues. 
  • Maintain routines. The more predictability and certainty we can build back into our lives, the better. To the extent that is possible, maintain a consistent schedule of meetings throughout the week. If you typically have a Wednesday morning team meeting, for example, continue to do that via video conferencing. Even end of week social gatherings can still happen – just online. 
  • Create a sense of community. Extended periods of isolation can be especially damaging to the strength of our spirit and mental health. We are fortunate to live in a time when we have the technology to connect ‘real time’ and ensure every member of the team feels visible and supported. Look for opportunities for the team to laugh together or get to know one another better than they did before.
  • Be flexible and adapt. For the foreseeable future, it’s neither possible nor desirable to take a ‘one size fits all’ approach to leading teams. Be mindful of the individual circumstances people face and take steps to adapt your approach as needed.  For example, know when a member of your team is living alone and unable to interact with other people. 
  • Be considerate. Be mindful of how people are now working and what that means for their capacity to focus and deliver. For example, while in some households it may be easy to switch to work mode, keep in mind some people are working at the kitchen bench while kids and pets run riot. Merely demanding more or turning up the pressure isn’t going to change reality and is likely to lead to unsustainable levels of stress for all concerned.
  • Set a positive example. You have tremendous influence over how people are thinking and feeling. The simple truth is none of us has the power to control either COVID-19 or the economic impact being felt around the world. The only real power we have is to choose our perspective and response to the current circumstances. Continue to express empathy but also encourage people to look beyond their fears to the things they can control.

Karen Gately is the founder of Corporate Dojo and a leadership and people-management specialist. She is the author of The People Manager’s Toolkit: A practical guide to getting the best from people (Wiley) and the host of Ticker TV’s Black Belt Leader.

Motivating and engaging your team

To get the best out of your people, you must understand the fine balance of influencing and motivating them to succeed.

The tried and tested SCARF model is an excellent tool to help you navigate the complexity of employee motivators. Join us as we delve into this model at our upcoming Virtual Masterclass: Motivating and Engaging Your Team.

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