Why leadership is vital for tackling workplace mental health

Woman sitting at her desk

I recently received a call from a chief executive overseas who had slipped into a very dark place. He had acknowledged that his levels of anxiety were “out of control”: sliding relationships at home, constantly thinking about work problems, poor sleep patterns, negative thinking about work colleagues, poor diet and a growing reliance on alcohol. He was at the end of his tether, knowing he was becoming obsessive about himself and his staff not being good enough. There was no let up.

Anyone reading this will know of someone who has struggled with something similar.

A 2018 survey by Medibio, of 3500 employees from 41 organisations across Australia, revealed a third of employees were suffering from some form of mental health issue — 36% from depression, 33% from anxiety and 31% from stress.

In this significant study, depression is higher than anxiety for the first time and noticeably, mental health issues have increased by a third in the last decade. Some suggest the changing face of our work environment, which includes flexible working, increased utilisation of technology and globalisation, is fragmenting the traditional interactive workplace. It’s certainly true that people are not staying in the same organisation as long as they did a decade or two ago.

What is also telling is that over half of employees don’t feel comfortable sharing their mental health issues with their seniors and the vast majority aren’t aware of the signs and signals.

According to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, nearly three million Australians live with depression and/or anxiety, which affects their wellbeing, personal relationships, career and productivity. If this isn’t capturing business leaders’ attention, how about the 100 thousand hours in estimated lost time? Or as psychologist Peta Slocombe puts it, “depression is estimated to cost Australian businesses $12.6 billion a year”.

The cost of job stress

Given a third of our lives will be spent at work, it’s no surprise that this is where we feel the most anxiety. With constant pressure to meet deadlines, increase revenue and beat targets, prolonged or excessive job stress is a risk factor for mental health problems and, research shows, accounts for 13% of depression in working men.

This is higher for working women — on average, one in five women, as opposed to one in eight men, will experience depression at some stage of their lives, according to ABS data.

Linked to a self-induced fear of failure in the workplace, anxiety can be immobilising, preventing employees from showing their value within the company and inhibiting career progression.

Leadership is a critical piece

It is important for individuals to keep in touch with their own mental health, however, anxiety and a fear of disappointment is what hinders most people from asking for help — which is where our leaders come in.

The role of our leaders is fundamental to improving the situation. An anxious leader cannot expect anything other than anxious followers. Right now, we need leaders with high emotional intelligence who are fine-tuned not just to take care of themselves, but also fully aware of the impact they have on others.

Recently I observed a leader who believed he was a good communicator and a positive individual. Yet when under pressure, his language noticeably deteriorated into pointing out others’ inadequacies, faults and mistakes. While he saw this as being honest, the team read it as being destructive — the age old problem of ‘what you say isn’t necessarily what is heard’.

So how do we ensure the next generation is cared for and supported, to minimise the risk of them adding to the weight of this problem? Recent research on 40,000 college students in the UK, US and Canada confirms perfectionism is on the rise, which has a strong correlation with anxiety and fear of failure.

As a practitioner in this field, I believe there is the need for effective resilience building and an understanding that although life may bring some disappointment, it can also provide great joy and happiness too — a great reminder for people of all ages. This translates into our professional careers too.

It is important for managers to be trained to be on the lookout for early signs of anxiety before they escalate into something more serious and detrimental to the workplace as a whole. Signs of anxiety to be on the lookout for include:

  • Irritability with day-to-day living conditions (such as traffic, weather, IT issues);
  • Frequent negative opinions about colleagues and/or clients;
  • Negative-future expectancy on suggested plans and ideas;
  • Inability to focus — easily distracted by any stimuli in the environment;
  • Procrastination — putting off a task by thinking about irrelevant problems/tasks;
  • Changed lifestyle habits — including poor sleep patterns, change in diet and reliance on drugs and/or alcohol; and
  • Lower productivity, increased sickness and absence.

All of these will have a negative impact on the relationships between teams and organisations.

What next?

Anxiety in the workplace is on the rise. The essential elements that need to be addressed include:

  • Defining ground rules, including mutual respect;
  • Open and honest communication processes;
  • Building trusting environments;
  • Defining team identity and emotionally connected goals;
  • Building reflection and downtime as part of the process;
  • Techniques for creating a calm environment;
  • Embracing and openly sharing mistakes as a process of improvement;
  • Celebrating positive experiences; and
  • Removing negative future expectancy and being grateful for opportunity.

If you or someone you know is living with mental health issues, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

NOW READ: How GPs can help managers improve workplace mental health

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