Mental health – when the leader needs support
Written by Sadie Visick
Over the past decade or so, the approach to wellbeing and mental health in the workplace has been transformed.
The days where employers relied on a sympathetic manager with a constant supply of tissues to deliver their ‘duty of care’ are hopefully well behind us.
Most organisations now provide a range of wellbeing initiatives, from mental health first aiders to professional counselling via external employee assistance programmes. Our mental health and how we are feeling have become part of everyday workplace conversations.
Today’s leaders are encouraged to be authentic and acknowledge their vulnerabilities, and this often comes up as a theme on Windsor Leadership programmes. However, it takes real courage to talk publicly about times when we have needed support, and relatable life experiences such as these insights from Jo Youle and David Ereira, are especially valuable.
But there’s a particular area that still feels a bit under the radar, and that’s how organisations go about managing the situation when they identify that a leader may be currently dealing with a mental health issue.
Leadership and mental health
And actually, we need to face into this, because leaders may be more likely than the rest of the population to face mental health challenges. Many will be familiar with research that has shown a correlation between ‘successful’ people and childhood adversity, including the loss of a parent. And so we aren’t surprised that the sort of people whose early experiences have conditioned them to ‘seize the day’ and drive hard to create a secure future, end up as leaders.
But research also shows a similar correlation exists between childhood adversity and mental illness in later life. So, the same people whose early experiences have created the drive to be successful, may also be carrying around a profound sense of loss or unresolved trauma.
Even if our early lives are generally free of significant negative events, any formative experiences of pain or loss may seep into our psyches without us noticing. So while we can function brilliantly most of the time, a bereavement, relationship breakdown, challenging family situation, or the menopause, can suddenly tip us into overwhelming feelings of anxiety or depression.
We’re used to being in control, the person others look to for support or direction - and now we wake up with a sense of dread, wondering if we can hold it together without anyone realising we are only just clinging on. We know we need to ask for help, but leaders are generally the worst at doing that, despite always encouraging others to…
So what do we do?
If it’s you…
- Talk to someone you trust. When we bring our feelings and fears into the light, they start to lose their grip on us. It could be a friend, a colleague, someone from your network, a coach or mentor, a faith leader. If you can’t face speaking to someone you know, call a support line, for example Rethink.
- Identify what you need and start to put things in place. It might be professional counselling or therapy, time out, reshaping your role, dialling back other responsibilities, practical support at home from close friends or family. When the time feels right, talk to your boss.
- Decide who needs to know what. You will want to have some control over what colleagues and stakeholders know about the situation. Your HR director can help you work through this.
If it’s another senior leader…
- Find a way to have a conversation. Pick a time and place that will feel safe to them and gently invite them to share how they are feeling without putting them under pressure. If you don’t think you are the right person to initiate this, then find someone who is.
- Offer them help to get what they need. You don’t have to be a mental health expert to listen and respond to what they are telling you with compassion. Think about practical solutions that might help, but make sure they feel in the driving seat.
- Know when to back off. It may be that they appreciate your ongoing support, or you checking in periodically, or it may be time to step back. Ask for a steer if it isn’t clear to you what they’d prefer.
If it’s your boss…
- Respect the power dynamic. Even the most enlightened leaders can feel vulnerable and worried about how this might affect their reputation or career. If you have a strong relationship of trust, then have a conversation. If you don’t, then confide in someone who has, either a senior colleague or your HR director.
- Help steady the ship. Be aware of how the situation may be impacting immediate colleagues and the wider organisation. Lock arms as a senior team, support each other and be ready to deal with what is likely to be an evolving situation. Notice how this might be impacting you, for example surfacing feelings connected to your own past experience of vulnerability and insecurity, and consider what you need to keep yourself well.
- Model the right behaviours. Ensure there is an official line and stick to it. Close down unhelpful chatter, but take opportunities to have broad discussions about how colleagues can support each other and the corporate culture you want to co-create.
In my experience, a sensitive invitation to talk, offered to someone who is suffering, often leads to extraordinarily powerful and rich conversations and a deeper sense of connection. Leaders need to ensure they are part of these conversations.
The views expressed in Blogs, Articles, Podcasts and Videos posted on Windsor Leadership’s website and social media channels, remain the opinions of the individuals and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of Windsor Leadership. Windsor Leadership does not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of the information shared. We hope however that the views prove to be useful in reflecting on the challenges of leading today.
Windsor Leadership’s Simon Whitbread reflects on our 2023 Question Time Event which was held at the IET London: Savoy Place on 17th October.
Tuesday 10th October is World Mental Health Day and each year the focus is set by the Mental Health Foundation. The purpose of the day is to raise awareness of mental health, helping to drive positive change for everyone’s mental health and this year the theme is ‘mental health is a universal human right’...
Keith Leslie is Chair at Samaritans in UK & Ireland and Chair of Mental Health At Work CIC, writing and speaking on leadership and mental health. He is a former Partner at Deloitte and McKinsey, advising on complex organisational transformations for the Government & Charity sectors.