8 Takeaways on Leader Care from The Mental Health Gap

One of the featured sessions at the Conference Board of Canada’s Mental Health Gap Conference, which took place in April, was Leadership perspectives: Supporting the mental health of senior management. The panelists were Santa Ono, Vice-Chancellor, UBC; Barb Keenan, Senior Vice President Human Resources, LCBO; and David Schwarz, Senior Vice President, Compensation and Benefits, RBC. These leaders shared their thoughts and insights on the importance of leader care, particularly at this time when so many are buckling under the weight of a protracted crisis and unrelenting demands and expectations. We distilled their conversation into 8 key takeaways.

  1. It is lonely at the top. Especially now!
    There is no way to alleviate the stress of the CEO, however, it needs to be acknowledged that this can be the loneliest role in the organization. Santa Ono shared staggering statistics from Oracle and Workplace Intelligence that found “C-suite executives (53%) have struggled with mental health issues in the workplace more than their employees (45%).” They also found they were having a harder time adapting to remote work.
  2. Stigma is still a significant barrier for CEOs.
    Despite all they are doing to create psychologically safe workplaces, many leaders still struggle with stigma. Hampered by a sense of responsibility to appear strong, they are reluctant to get the help they need. There is the perception that stress is seen as a weakness. Many will hide or ignore issues rather than divulge how they are feeling.
  3. Psychological safety must start at the very top of the organization.
    There is tremendous pressure on CEOs and presidents to care for the health and wellbeing of their organizations, customers, and communities, but who is looking after them? Santa Ono says the Board should be caring for senior leaders and notes that he and his Chair have regular check ins. He also acknowledged that this can be tricky since the Chair is, in fact, the CEO’s boss. However, just as senior leaders and managers need to support the psychological safety of employees, the same must be true for the board and the CEO.
  4. Leaders set the tone for the organization.
    Teams are watching to make sure leaders are walking the talk. At LCBO, the leadership team agreed to establish a shared objective and landed on setting a mental health strategy. As part of this, they discuss self-care and the challenges of leading in a crisis at their leadership meetings.
  5. Empathy and vulnerability are strengths not weaknesses.
    The panelists agreed that if you don’t understand vulnerability, you can’t be a good leader or expect people to follow you. They noted that leaders talk a good game, but many really don’t know what to do when they see someone struggling. All agreed that it is critical to be a visible empathetic leader and to be human in professional relationships. David Schwarz emphasized that leaders can encourage people to be whole, while elevating performance, by coaching and mentoring and engaging people with straight talk and honesty.
  6. Take advantage of available supports and resources.
    Because many fear being rendered weak or ineffective, leaders often don’t take advantage of, or feel they have the same access to, the resources and support that others in the organization do. Schwarz noted that they run wellness campaigns at RBC and very few leaders attend. On top of attendance setting the right tone for the rest of the organization, leaders should take advantage of these opportunities to manage their own wellbeing. Schwarz also noted that at RBC leaders are held accountable for how they treat people. “If you only talk performance and not self-care, you’re missing half the equation.” He added that, otherwise, people feel they can’t bring their whole self to work.
  7. Trusted peers are critical to the psychological wellbeing of senior leaders.
    Many CEOs belong to industry and peer networks which can be safe places for sharing leadership and business challenges. However, it is difficult to be candid about personal challenges in a group setting. The panel recommended that CEOs seek out one or two trusted people that they can be vulnerable with, and that they be intentional about setting aside time with those people.
  8. Senior leaders must put their masks on first.
    Barb Keenan likened CEO self-care to the instructions we are given when we are on a plane. “You can only help others if you put your mask on first.” When the CEO is struggling, the whole organization struggles. Senior leaders need to be permitted to recharge. On top of the importance from a self-care perspective, this sets the right example for the rest of the organization. Even the smallest actions and decisions can have a significant impact. Some examples shared by the group included mental health and resilience training, meditation, yoga, meeting free lunch times, walking meetings, consciously distinguishing between what is truly urgent versus what is important.

Barb Keenan referenced “How to Lead When Your Team Is Exhausted – And You Are, Too” an article featured in the Harvard Business Review at the height of the second wave of COVID. The article begins with comments from a leader lamenting the loss of his “steady hand, and rapid action mindset.” It talks about the waves of the pandemic and the need for psychological stamina to make it through these subsequent stages of recovery. It encourages leaders to adopt behaviours to bolster both personal and team resilience.

“Cultivating resilience requires some emotional rewiring and calls for a different kind of appeal to team members and colleagues. The essential task is to identify your biggest challenges over the next year and then tap the psychological stamina you and your team need to get there. There are three key steps: understanding the difference between urgency and importance; balancing comfort with containment; and finding new ways to energize yourself and others.”

The panelists all agreed that leaders must reinforce the message that we are all human and we are in this together. Modelling the healthy behaviours they expect to see from others, and being vulnerable are logical places to start building trust and being authentic. To bring the point home, Schwarz shared this quote from author Criss Jami, “To share weakness is to make yourself vulnerable. To make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.”

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