Leadership behaviours to support mental health

By Dr. Bill Howatt and Louise Bradley

As leaders, most of the advice we seek today will be yesterday’s news by tomorrow. But we believe there are two pieces of advice on which you’ll be able to hang your hat throughout the entirety of COVID-19 - and beyond.

Being kind is more important than being right, and being vulnerable is your superpower.

We are at the beginning of what looks to be a long and difficult journey. We cannot be surprised when employees - who are isolated at home, struggling to work remotely while juggling their family responsibilities - begin to experience mental health problems. Nor should it come as a shock that many essential workers, who are being asked to carry out their jobs under arduous and potentially unsafe conditions, will experience heightened stress and anxiety.

Conditions are brewing to unleash a crisis within a crisis. From domestic violence, to grief, suicide, anger, mental illness and substance misuse, to job loss, shelter and food insecurity and financial hardship, the resiliency of the human spirit is being tested in ways not seen for generations.

Organizations are being tested as their very fabric is being pulled to its limits. And in these circumstances, we must learn, and embrace, that our leaders are as human as the rest of us. Being flexible, adaptive and innovative are requirements to weather this storm. But leaders who wish to emerge from this crisis stronger, more empowered and more credible, need to be more than nimble tacticians or brilliant strategists.

Tapping into our shared humanity, through humility and vulnerability, will separate those who lead with their head, and those who lead with their heart. In this moment, leading with your heart is the only way to navigate these unchartered waters. That means being frank about what you don’t know, dogged in finding the best answers you can, and willing to revise and revisit as circumstances warrant.

Here is what we know for sure:

  • Care for self - “Don’t light yourself on fire to keep others warm.” Leading in crisis begins with being clear about your capacity and limitations. As a leader you have a finite amount of time and energy. This requires accepting that you too are human, and you need to put in place your own self-care plan. Your plan doesn’t need to be complicated. It ensures you’re doing the little things consistently that will help bolster your resiliency. These include eating, sleeping, engaging the people you love by checking in daily, resting and taking time for a bit of relaxation and fun each day. You’ll find yourself very quickly drained if you don’t keep your battery charged.
  • Reassure your team - Keep the lines of communication open with your team. Be aware that each team member will need a different level of communication and support. Don’t assume; ask each employee how you can best support them, so they can be assured you care about them and will do all you can to help.
  • Integrated learning - A crisis like COVID-19 is fast-moving, so it’s important that leaders can adapt and integrate learnings as they come. Set the expectation with your team that you will be updating them daily on new information and changes as things evolve. Consider building an internal FAQ that keeps all your updates in one place, so employees have a one-stop shop for relevant information. The Mental Health Commission of Canada prioritized building an internal staff resource before creating this external resource hub.
  • Stay focused - Be clear on your top priorities and do your best to stay focused on them. Reduce the temptation to open more doors or to tackle new initiatives that are not mission-critical to get through this crisis. Naming your priorities can silence the noise that threatens to distract your team from your stated goals.
  • Involve - Ask your team for their input, thoughts and ideas and let them know you trust their instincts. Empower them to use the full latitude of their discretion so they feel included in decision-making. Tap into their expertise and experience when applicable. You may have employees who have amazing talents ideally suited to supporting organizational efforts during this crisis. Make sure your team knows you’re open to their ideas, knowledge and skills, and welcome feedback.
  • Show up - Perhaps one of the toughest challenges for a leader is to show up and be ready and engaged every day as this crisis drags on. Typically, adrenaline will get a leader through a two-day crisis. However, a 16- to 20-week or longer crisis is a marathon none among us have trained for. This is why it’s critical for you to be active in your own self-care, so you’re constantly building your resiliency and mental health. Employees need their leaders to lead and be available and accessible in a crisis. Half the battle is just showing up.

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1 Response

  1. Tay
    It's thoughtful post. It's a learning. Thanks for sharing.

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