The big picture problem
The way leaders work today is unsustainable. The world of work is changing rapidly, and leaders are struggling to keep up with the speed of change. Leaders are overwhelmed by the global economy, new technologies and an increasingly demanding workforce.
It’s not just leaders though, the global workforce is suffering from mental health issues. In a recent study by Harvard Business Review, 51% of respondents said they have experienced burnout in their current role—and it’s not just one generation that’s feeling the impact. Today’s leaders are dealing with a myriad of causes contributing to their decreased performance: the pressure to constantly do more with less resources; technology that never turns off; higher levels of stress at home and work; increased pressure to meet goals; more distraction at work than ever before; a lack of time to process their feelings or get perspective on their decisions—all while still trying to support employees who are also feeling these pressures.
When experiencing stress, the body initiates its “fight or flight” response. This results in a surge of adrenaline and cortisol, which are hormones that increase alertness, energy, and concentration. We’re not fighting on the battlefield, but our reactions and the symptoms they cause are similar.
Although this response is effective when needed to help us stay safe (for example, when we encounter a dangerous situation), it’s harmful if it persists for long periods of time without much relief. The physical symptoms of sustained stress include:
- feelings of anxiety and depression
- poor sleep due to anxiety
- an inability to focus
- lack of energy
Some people also experience emotional symptoms including:
- feelings of overwhelm
- feelings of being under pressure
Others may have behavioral changes such as:
- increased alcohol consumption
- increased caffeine consumption
We sometimes forget that leaders are people too and separate their role from their humanity. Leaders themselves fall into this trap as well and often neglect their mental health trying to fit an image of what a leader should be. However, the mental health challenges that we are all facing are agnostic when it comes to your place in the org chart.
- Mental health challenges are now the #1 cause of workplace absence in the U.K., costing employers more than £9 billion per year
- The World Health Organization predicts that by 2030, mental illness will be the second leading cause of death worldwide (after heart disease).
- The cost to businesses of poor mental health is estimated to be between $17 and $44 billion annually in Canada alone.
Not only are leaders personally feeling the pressures, but their organizations are suffering as well. In fact, companies with engaged employees have three times the revenue growth and 3-10% higher customer satisfaction ratings compared to companies without engaged employees.*
A Checklist for Better Health & Wellbeing
- Take the stress out of your life.
Realistically, this sounds impossible. When you’re in a high-profile, high-pressure role stress feels like part of the roles and responsibilities of the job description. The goal is not to eliminate stress altogether, but to decrease unnecessary stresses and find ways to include stress reducing activities into your routine.
- Understand how you’re engaging with others.
The stress, anxiety, and overwhelm we feel gets absorbed by those around us and gets reflected back to us. As a leader it’s important to manage our own stress levels for our own sake and for the sake of our teams. If you do the work to come to your conversations with a sense of calm that is what you’ll get back.
- Invest in your personal growth.
Feeling competent and self-aware is a game-changer when it comes to stress and burnout. If you think about it, the times and places where you feel most stressed and overwhelmed are those where you feel in over your head or disconnected from yourself. Building up your skills through training, coaching and even therapy can help get you back on top of things.
- Reach out for support when you need it.
As a leader, your options for support feel limited even though this is the time you need it the most. Due to hierarchy, you may not be able to find it at your organization; you’re in an exclusive club, but you’re not alone. Find other executives and mentors that are committed to growth and healthy leadership, they’re out there.
- Listen to those around you.
You can’t grow without feedback from others, it’s like trying to get ready for the day without a mirror. Encourage a culture of honesty and constructive feedback, this not only helps you, but gives your team the ability to be heard and reflect on their own needs.
If leaders are to thrive in their careers, it’s critical that they understand their own mental health and wellbeing.
At this point it’s unavoidable that you will have to learn how to take care of your mental health as a leader. How you do this has implications for your entire organization and can have positive or negative results. What is most important is your own self-awareness, knowing what your needs are and how to find solutions can make all the difference.
The importance of self-awareness:
- As you understand how your mental health affects your work, it allows you to work better with others.
- As you understand how your mental health affects your work, it allows you to make better decisions.
- As you understand how your mental health affects your work, it allows you to be more successful in your career.