Reflections on Leadership and Mental Health
As part of my series of reflections on leadership I’ve been mulling this post over for a few months. I recently shared my experience of trauma and burnout and am continuing my recovery. In this process I have noticed some patterns and places where we have opportunities to lead better when it comes to our own mental health and the mental health of those we work with. This is by no means a definitive list, but there are a few things I’m experimenting with. My hunch is if we scaled them across leadership in all it’s forms, it could have a tremendously positive impact.
I love this image from Liz Fozzlein because I think a lot of us are doing this. Saying we’re fine when the truth is so far from that.
None of us are fine. We’re living in a pandemic and facing existential threats across multiple facets of our lives. And yet, how are we all still showing up? When should we be showing up, and when should we step back? What are we normalizing in how we lead when our mental health is suffering?
I was going to write a list of a bunch of things you could do to help your team during uncertainty, and when flirting with burnout… but then lo and behold, A Manager’s Guide to Helping Teams Face Down Uncertainty, Burnout and Perfectionism with all the best advice from Liz and Mollie was shared, and I couldn’t really improve on it! So you should definitely read that!
The only additional value I can provide is to share some really specific examples of what struck me as most the impactful leadership I noticed during my recent experiences.
Start with yourself
I once got some amazing advice from Sara Wachter-Boettcher in a leadership reset course at Active Voice. She said, “If you want to be a good leader, help yourself.” (She might actually have said “work your shit out… in therapy if required”). It’s hard but it’s the most impactful thing you can do for everyone else. I think sometimes we conflate “self awareness” and “self work”. There is no amount of personality quiz results that are going to help you really understand why you move through the world like you do. As a leader, that work has the potential to benefit you and your team in substantial ways.
Therapy sound like a drastic measure? I’m here, as someone who thought they were pretty self aware, fairly thoughtful, and intentionally reflective to say, “therapy is different” and I’m not aware of any real substitute? There is no short cut for really digging in and doing the work of understanding your own internal narratives, what triggers you to react, or why you feel some things the way you do. If you haven’t done some hard work to understand yourself, and really know what patterns you have (good or bad) it’s harder for any “vulnerability” to land the way you intended with your team. It also means you might not recognize other people in how they show up and what they’re doing that causes you to react in certain ways. In my experience, you can’t read a self help book and do this alone. A trained professional is ideal if you have access and the insurance or means to cover the cost.
Maybe you’re thinking, I have never been burned out and haven’t experienced trauma… Well then let me say congratulations, you are really lucky. AND you’re also exceptionally privileged. It also means you have a duty to learn about and try to understand the experiences of those who don’t have that privilege. If you’re managing people, you need to take some time to understand burnout and trauma. Statistical probability is that people on your team have or are dealing with one or both. If you don’t have access to learning resources at work, read a few books. I’d recommend Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle ,The Body Keeps Score, and Big Feelings. If you’re not ready to deep dive, maybe start by signing up for the Raw Signal Group’s excellent newsletter.
The little things make a difference
The other thing I think we need to do more of is the boring and unsexy self care stuff. I’m not talking about big flourishes. I mean consistent micro actions that over time make a big impact on yourself and those around you.
- If you need to share hard things, frame what you’re asking for. “I need to vent and say some of this out loud so I can let it go.” or “I think I’m in an unhelpful thinking pattern, can you help me check?” or “I really need perspective on what to do next here…” There’s a big difference in what you’re asking the other person for.
- If someone confides in you, ask before you jump into “fix mode”. Say something like “Do you need me to just listen, or are you looking for me to help with this?”
- Normalize walking meetings, or meetings in outside spaces. This helps you and others get much needed time away from desks and screens. It’s good for our bodies and our brains.
- Being willing to pause and say “I’m not where I need to be today so I’m going to reschedule.”
- If something unexpected happens saying, “I need time to process this and sort out my feelings before I engage on this further” and then going for a walk or doing something totally unrelated that completes your stress cycle.
- Honest out of office replies. I made a point of doing this over the years, and especially this past year. Sometimes reflecting on how complicated our national holidays can be… and other times to say “I needed a break…” And I can tell you that I often get notes of thanks from peers when they get an honest auto reply from me.
Be honest about how hard it is
I think there’s an unhealthy perception that good leaders manage their emotions and never let others see what’s hard. I’d argue that keeping those things silent actually created a barrier between you and your team. I’d go one step further, and say that this norm is actually unhelpful and excludes all kinds of people from being able to show up as themselves.
Now I’m not saying that there aren’t times and places where you need to be the anchor and help people feel calm and secure. And there are also times when its correct to protect your privacy for your own self. I’m talking here about the things we don’t share because we feel some level of shame or failure. I really do believe you can balance both authenticity and privacy. I think it’s totally helpful to say it out loud when things really aren’t okay. And you can do this in ways that don’t necessarily ask other people to fix it. Just acknowledging has power.
Be the person who makes space
I recently saw a great image in a tweet from the folks at Raw Signal with a poster that says,
Feel your feelings then let them go.
I’ve observed or even heard leaders say things like “That happened ages ago, why are we still talking about that?” or “People need to get over that.” Here’s the thing. There’s an entire process to moving through grief or other big feelings. In a work context it seems like we rarely intentionally create or hold space for people to do the first part. I mean feel their feelings. Somewhere in modern management practice we lost our way and tried to get people to leave their feelings at the door. It doesn’t work.
When changes or pivots happen and we skip this step in organizational health, it means we’re effectively leaving people stuck or stranded trying to process by themselves. Or occasionally, we let people express how they feel and then unintentionally diminish them by saying “positive” things (that are toxic) or making promises about things getting better that we can’t keep. You don’t have to agree or justify anything. You just need to validate, reflect your understanding back, and let them know you’ve heard them.
One relatable example of where we don’t make space for feelings is during a re-structuring in a team or organization. Don’t underestimate the impact that restructuring can have on teams. I’ve observed a pattern of just one “here’s the information about the new structure” without any support for the sense of loss or lack of control that people experience. Especially if some people leave the organization… it can be very unsettling, and made worse when nobody makes space to process or talk about that. Again, this situation might just be a layer on top of all the other things people are experiencing. Hint: this might be why their reaction doesn’t seem proportional to you. This is another reason to seek to better understand what might be going on for people, and not assume or judge how they react.
If you want people to move on, check and make sure they’ve been supported to feel their feelings.
Enough is enough
If someone on your team is struggling and has the courage to say it out loud. Believe them. Support them. As I said in my personal story, nobody needs to have to be “traumatized enough” or have it worse than literally everyone you know in order to qualify for needing help or time off. Don’t underestimate all of the self doubt, guilt, or shame they have been feeling. If they’ve gotten to the point where they’re asking for your help please don’t say “are you sure?” or “you’re stronger than you realize… you can handle this.”
Instead, say :
“I got you. I’m here to support you. I’m proud of you for saying what you need right now.”
A handy list of things you can say to someone:
On the topic of things to say… These are all things that people said to me that were really helpful.
- That is a lot, no wonder you’re overwhelmed.
- I’m proud of you for prioritizing your health.
- How can I help protect the boundaries you need right now?
- I have been through this too. If you’d like, I can share what helped me.
- Let’s break this into smaller bits and just focus on the next thing.
- I’m here. I’m listening.
- It’s your job to rest right now.
- You don’t need to reply. I’m thinking of you today.
That last one is important. A lot of people feel weird about treading into a conversation with someone who is taking a mental health break, either for a day or for longer. Some worry about intruding so you never hear from them. Other people just call or show up when you might not feel up for it. Getting a “no need to reply” message is a way to respect boundaries that a person might need and give them permission to do what’s right for them at that moment. They’ll feel loved and cared for by you, but not obligated to interact. Which is the absolute kindest thing you can do for someone while they are doing the hard work of taking care of themselves.
What’s the next right thing for you?
So, maybe you’ve come this far and are thinking you need to take action? Maybe it’s overwhelming. One thing that helps me is to just focus on ‘the next right thing’. Pick one action or one small goal and just work on that without worrying about the big picture.
- Decide which of the books I listed above you want to seek out. You can find them at the library, or maybe borrow from a friend?
- Make a coffee date with someone you trust and tell them how you’re *really doing.
- Heck, just share this post with a friend and say “This really has me thinking about what I need.”
If you’re considering therapy, get serious and start that process. Some workplaces offer some supports via employee assistance programs. If you’re able to afford or are insured for private care, I found the ability to search and filter verified therapists on psychologytoday.com very helpful. A great therapist doesn’t need to be a psychologist. Social workers, counselling therapists, and many other trained professionals are all excellent options. You can choose specializations, online or in person, location… all in just a few clicks. Reading how someone describes their work is a great way to get an idea of what they’re like. Finding someone you connect with is key so request a short phone consultation and treat it like an interview. You can also ask your doctor or someone you trust if they know someone they’d recommend.
And lastly, as I said in my personal burnout story, If you are struggling with burnout… or what you think is burnout, don’t wait. Do something. Get a therapist. Find a copy of and read Burnout — The secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Take stock of your obligations and have someone you trust help you honestly assess if they’re yours to hold.
This post is part of an ongoing series of my personal reflections on leadership. Read the other two posts: Reflections on leadership in the digital era and Reflections on leadership: The comfort conundrum