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Why leaders are so important in supporting good mental health in the workplace and the core competencies needed

This article is part of the Filling your Cup series to improve the health of people working in the community mental health sector.

Brought to you by WayAhead Workplaces and Mental Health Coordinating Council and written by Steph Thompson, WayAhead Workplaces Lead.

An organisation that is mentally healthy, has a shared vision at all levels and understand the value of the people within the organisation.

What it truly comes down to is involved, supportive leadership. Meaningful, top led, inspiring initiatives, a program that takes an integrated approach and a leader who understands the importance of solid, consistent people management.

Frequently it occurs that people receive promotions and go into manager roles as they have been high performing in their trained role.

A person who is working as a Social Worker for example, might be a great Social Worker and become a team leader, and this promotion can be deserving and wanted, however, people management and leadership require some specific skills and this training doesn’t always occur.

Or it might occur as a one off, but the ongoing capability and accountability is not there.

The intent behind this might not be malicious but come down to resources, awareness or culture. When people feel supported, understood and like their leader is holding space for them, then it is a first step towards creating a culture of mental wellbeing.

There isn’t just one thing that matters when it comes to workplace mental health, but this topic of leadership capability is one of those that has the success of others hinging off it.

Manager one-on-ones and support

Having regular check ins with each person at an agreed upon frequency is best practice to ensure people have the space created for them to gain clarity on tasks, challenges, grievances.

Although this might sound simple, it is also frequently the one thing that falls to the side when work becomes demanding and when wellbeing dips.

I have seen wonderful leaders cancel one-on-ones to prioritise deadlines that are seemingly more important, then not reschedule or offer an explanation, and then cancel the next one.

Not only does this send a message of not valuing the employee’s time, but it also means that people are left without a space to ask questions, get approvals and make decisions or check in on how they are performing.

Sometimes these one on ones will be straight forward and then occasionally they will be the catalyst for deep discussion, great creativity and feedback that can improve productivity and mental health overall.

Performance conversations

Performance management is complex. Creating a culture whereby regular, helpful and respectful feedback is the norm and people are supported to both give and receive regardless of hierarchy, can play a huge role in ensuring accountability, productivity and avoiding things getting out of control.

The regular manager one on ones play a role here, because if performance is discussed regularly, then major crises can be avoided, and nothing should come as a surprise.

When it comes to performance, if there is a sudden change, the conversation needs to be focused on wellbeing. What is going on for this person?

Reflecting on the behaviours that are tangible that have been noticed is helpful in removing the personal potential defensiveness that can come when someone feels attacked.

Focus on the behaviours and outputs that have changed, rather than the individual.

Emotional intelligence and empathy

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is arguably more important than IQ in a leadership role. But what exactly is it? Someone with high EQ normally presents these attributes:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Internal motivation
  • Empathy
  • Social skills.

While all of these are important for EQ, empathy is one of the most crucial skills in leadership and in fact, empathy should be a looked for trait in many role types.

Empathy is the ability to understand a person’s perspectives and experience – the ability to put oneself into someone else’s shoes.

It is the skill that people use to predict if what they are trying to achieve, is achievable. If what they are trying to sell is being received how they intend it to be.

Feeling understood and supported is key to having employees feel connected to their manager and to their organisation.

Having a manager who leads without judgement and is capable of seeing themselves through the eyes of their reports, can completely reshape how managers lead for the better. And the impact on mental health for reports is extraordinary.

First of all, when it comes to disclosure, people do not have to disclose anything they are not comfortable with, however, when it comes to mental distress being able to disclose to a manger means that appropriate work modifications are able to be made if necessary, medical or health appointments can be attended without fear of judgement or punishment. Ongoing check ins will be more authentic.

Accountability & recognition

Accountability and recognition relate to both the acknowledgement of achievements and the holding to account people and work in the team that is not meeting targets or expectations. Accountability is a complex issue and can be loaded and subjective.

Imagine working in a team where you can see that there are people not doing their part on a project and feeling as though you are doing your part fully or holding things together on behalf of others.

Imagine if the people in the team who are not meeting their requirements are not questioned on this, and to add to that, you as the person doing more than your share of work, are not being acknowledged.

There is also the accountability that leaders have to their employees. Showing up on time to meetings, providing feedback, approvals and answering questions so employees can keep moving through their work.

Psychosocial risk mitigation

The term psychosocial risk considers not just the physical safety risks of a workplace, but also hazards and potential hazards that previously have been more difficult and nuanced to identify, measure and quantify.

All work environments will have psychosocial risks – some that are present all the time, due to the nature of the work and some that occur occasionally.

On top of occupational hazards, the top most common psychosocial risks in the workplace are:

  • Poor support: this is when people do not have what they need to do their job adequately. It refers to both the emotional or human support from leadership as well as the practical guidance and tools needed such as equipment, training, time and information.
  • Demand: all jobs have times when there are deliverables and demand might be high. For most of us, this is normal and manageable when support is adequate. However, in some industries and roles demand becomes a hazard when these excessive pressures are sustained. This includes workload and significant time pressures to name a few.
  • Bullying and harassment: Bullying and harassment of any type is a significant psychosocial risk. As well as this more extreme end of the spectrum, workplace relationships that are poor and or make it difficult to engage with also pose a risk. For example, lack of equity in dealing with workplace concerns or where performance issues are poorly managed, or people are not held to account for poor performance.
  • Organisational change: This includes when change is poorly managed and communication and consultation is not done adequately or where potential risks are not considered in the actual change and there is not enough support available to staff during a tumultuous time.
  • Workplace violence: This is a significant psychosocial risk. This is a workplace situation that exposes an employee to abuse, the threat of harm or actual harm and causes fear and distress which can lead to work-related stress and physical injury.

Don’t forget, self compassion and boundaries

It might sound as though these skills leave little time for doing any actual work.

I want to acknowledge that managers are not required to be mental health professionals for their team members, and that these skills can be a lifelong journey.

They are not something you acquire once and have mastered.

This article is one of a series of four in the WayAhead Workplaces and Mental Health Coordinating Council ‘Filling your Cup’ resource. Tune in on 2 December to read about how the structure of the organisation we work for, the work we do and how we do it influence our mental health.

For more information on everything workplace health and wellbeing, check out the WayAhead Workplaces site, and sign up to the free e-newsletter

Find out more about the ‘Filling your Cup’ series