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The Pandemic, Mental Health and Leadership

The experience of a pandemic does not change the principles of good leadership, but the context and scope for exemplary leadership in organisations have transformed and expanded:

  • Leading change suddenly became everyone’s role – in schools, small businesses, families, charities, community groups, faith groups, retail outlets, care homes, and the big organisations of companies, professional services, government, NHS and public services. 
  • Everyone had a shared experience of change, and we all talked about the same issues – trust in our leaders, learning from frontline workers, unfamiliar new roles, experimenting with new processes and equipment, shortages, inequalities, promoting mental health, assuaging anxieties, dealing with loss, and supporting our communities.

The pandemic’s economic, social and health consequences are still working through our organisations, societies, and families, creating new issues for leaders of organisations. It is easy to list the consequential negatives and stresses in UK society: ‘The have-nots’ falling even further behind ‘the haves’, social discord, inequalities and mental distress. The pandemic raises anxieties and stresses for many who would in the past had manageable lifestyles – we probably all know parents (and children) struggling with home-schooling while working from home and, perhaps like us, you are helping out in a support bubble. Leaders across every sector of society and the economy increasingly talk about their personal experience of mental ill-health. Depression and anxiety cause US $1 trillion of lost productivity each year in the global economy with a vast and avoidable toll on individuals, families, organisations and society. 

But there are many positives to be seen in many organisations during the pandemic and its aftermath:

  • Thriving and belonging: individual psychology and organisational purpose
  • Human beings have a tremendous capacity for survival in adversity. But merely surviving is not good enough, especially following the contradictions we observed during and after the pandemic. For us to be true ‘all in this together’, leaders need to be continually nurturing organisational purpose and belonging. This investment does pay off, both in thriving human potential and thriving organisations because people are willing to ‘go the extra mile’.
  • Culture that includes everyone: changing the powerful and invisible
  • Cultural norms of ‘this are how we do things here’ can be a power play to frustrate change that challenges established leadership groups within an organisation. Cultural norms also often act to marginalise minority populations. To achieve positive change and organisational belonging, leaders need to understand the unintended impacts of organisational culture – then change unhelpful or outdated ingrained behaviours, create new peer groups and include previously excluded groups and cadres.
  • Promoting mental health: the leadership opportunity
  • Mental health increased on the public agenda over two decades, but it took the pandemic and its aftermath to demonstrate the impact across the population and how we need leadership attention to protect and support mental health. Leaders can mitigate the epidemic of stress and ill health in the workplace that is costly economically and slows momentum for change: as individuals and organisationally, we can be more productive and fulfilled.

Work can and should be positive for mental health. Change at work can be productive and supportive for individuals and organisations, when well-led. Work and change challenge our performance, and leaders have to develop and step up. ‘Challenge’ can give positive results – but ‘stress’ is only to be coped with. Stress is about frustration, overreaction, powerlessness, bullying behaviours, alienation – and unremitting stress, leading to mental ill-health in the form of depression and anxiety.

The good news is that there is a body of evidence on effective prevention of mental ill-health and that investing in mental health has a substantial financial pay-off. Leaders need to move on from ‘awareness’ to ‘action’, creating a supportive workplace culture that promotes mental health. A mentally healthy workplace would:

  • Build personal resilience and peer support.
  • Equip line managers – not to become ‘therapists’ but to suggest ‘therapeutic actions’.
  • Promote leaders as allies for mental health.
  • Appraise the impact of senior leaders, frontline leaders and management teams in promoting mental health.

Leaders need to engage with the real work of change – not indulge in the variety of work avoidance games – and tackle poor behaviours in their organisations. Leaders’ behaviour must match their words in valuing mentally healthy leadership at all levels.
Keith Leslie is Chair of Mental Health At Work CIC, and Chair of Samaritans in the UK & Ireland. He is the author of A Question of Leadership: Leading Change in Times of Crisis.

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