By Lynda Holt
Leadership in 2021 is not for the fainthearted. Most of us have seen upended rituals, changed working practices, and a rapid demise of ‘business as usual’. Unsurprisingly, this has had a negative impact on mental wellbeing for many.
Before the pandemic we talked about unrealistic workloads, deadlines and expectations as key factors contributing to stress and poor mental wellbeing, now we talk about uncertainty, upended lives, hybrid working and isolation. The reality is all of these are true, they all impact mental wellbeing, but the elephant in the room here is people.
People impact mental wellbeing at work more than anything else. This might be directly through their behaviour or indirectly through the stories we tell ourselves about those people.
If you lead people, you may have already noticed a tension around what you know and are comfortable with, and what your people really need from you right now. Protecting your team’s mental wellbeing is one of those tensions and you might be wondering how you manage this, especially if you are feeling vulnerable yourself.
The answer is to be more human. Do what you are biologically designed to do, connect, empathise and make things better; if you can skip conformity and judgementfor long enough, that is.
Humans are social creatures, with big brains that hate uncertainty; when we don’t have all the facts,we make them up. Well, we draw on the information we’ve filed and stored in those brains.
Liberman*says that when not consciously occupied, we default to social processing. In other words, we try to make sense of other people and our interactions with them to determine whether we are safe and valued. We do this by running scenarios, re-running events, and considering ‘what ifs’.
Based on this social processing, we create stories which become the information we later draw on.Our version of reality is at best biased, and often unhelpful when it comes to mental wellbeing.
Protecting mental wellbeing at work is firstly about helping your people feel safe, psychologically, physically, and socially. Do they trust you will do what you say you will?Do they feel valued, heard and that they are contributing? These help to create psychological safety, even in an uncertain world.
We are neurologically hard wired to be connected and compassionate towards each other, both produce neurochemicals (oxytocin and dopamine), which help us to stay in rest and restore mode (the opposite of fight / flight).
Imagine an antelope grazing (rest and restore mode), he sees a lion approaching and literally runs for his life (fight / flight mode), the lion finds something else to chase, the antelope goes back to grazing (rest and restore resumes). This is how we are designed to work.
Except our brains create feedback loops as we re-run things. This, together with the pace many of us work at and that feeling we are always ‘on’ mean we never fully return to rest and restore mode. The low-level fight / flight mode is sustained by raised adrenaline and cortisol, both of which can elevate feelings of fear and anxiety.
In an attempt to distance ourselves from feeling fear, two strategies prevail.
- Conformity – working hard to fit in and maintain the status quo
- Judgement – to distance ourselves from the perceived threat,we judge behaviour, or even social groups and whole cultures, as different – ‘I’m not like that, so it won’t happen to me’
Both of these strategies might ease psychological distress in the very short term. Both are also really bad for mental wellbeing in the longer term.
Conformity erodes self-confidence and personal agency, making it harder for your team to contribute, more resistant to change and in extreme cases, difficult to work with.
Judgement is more damaging.It breaks human to human connection, reducing compassion and empathyand the good neurochemicals they produce, which makes people feel more fearful, less trusting and ultimately less safe.
Spotting the warning signs of deteriorating mental wellbeing or even burnout enable you to act earlier, so here are the most common ones:
- Disconnection or disinterest
- Depletion or exhaustion
- Mood changes
- Reduced contribution
- Self-doubt or lower confidence
- Poor self-worth
So as winter approaches, what do you need to do to protect and improve mental wellbeing?
First show up, as the imperfect, real human that you are. This takes courage, vulnerability even, connecting is sometimes uncomfortable. You need to explore where your people are at, how they are feeling, and care enough to deal with what you find.
You don’t have to fix everything, you make it better by supporting, involving and enabling people, and by giving them some sense of control.
If you need to make some changes, here are five things to focus on:
- Personal Agency – we all need to feel some control, choice and influence over what happens to us. Start conversations about agency, mental wellbeing and personal responsibility, you might be surprised what comes up.
- Connection – social connection matters, take time to really know each other. This makes difficult conversations safer and reduces judgement.
- Movement – movement and mental wellbeing are inextricably linked, encourage your people to get up and move around, maybe take walking meetings – or a moving activity if you are mostly working online.
- Environment – think about bringing nature in, with plants and natural daylight. Encourage people to take a break outside if possible.
- Contribution – people need to know they make a difference, involve people, let them help, and value their contribution. Remember to celebrate the good stuff.
Finally, being a good leader is tough, make sure you create space to recharge, pay attention to your attitude and contribution, and know what depletes you. Look after your own mental wellbeing first, then you’ll be able to support your team.
*Matthew D. Lieberman (2015) Social: Why our brains are wired to connect
About the Author
ABOUT LYNDA HOLT, MA, DipHE, RGN, FInstLM, FRSA, PPABP
Founder and CEO, Health Service 360
A prominent leadership coach specialising in the healthcare sector, Lynda Holt has over 20 years’ experience inspiring leaders and health professionals to make tangible change, empower their people and improve patient experience. Lynda founded Health Service 360 in 2001, which provides bespoke, solution-driven consultancy, leadership development and coaching to the NHS and other leading healthcare organisations around the world. Lynda champions courageous leadership through her Braver Community.
In her former NHS career, Lynda’s leadership journey took her from the A&E ward to board, and she spent six years as National Chair of the Royal College of Nursing Emergency Care Association.
Lynda provides tailored leadership development programmes as well as training delivery and coaching either one-to-one or in groups. Besides the healthcare sector, Lynda also works with business owners, social entrepreneurs and senior leadership teams in the creative sector, supporting personal and business growth, culture change and visionary leadership.
In 2019, Lynda co-designed the I-CARE framework for courageous leadership, which has since supported thousands of nurses working through the hardships of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Lynda also has a non-profit part of her business, which is the ongoing social movement #EndPJparalysis. The movement aims to reduce physical and psychological deconditioning by sharing best practice and wisdom amongst health and social care professionals.
A published author, Lynda has written a number of books including Get Out of Your Own Way: Stop Sabotaging Your Business and Learn to Stand Out in a Crowded Market (2012, NABO); and Accident & Emergency: Theory Into Practice, which was first published in 2000 and is still the go-to guide in today’s A&E training departments.
Connect with Lynda here: