One in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point during their lives, according to the World Health Organization. In fact, around 450 million people currently suffer from such conditions today, making mental disorders one of the leading causes of ill health and disability worldwide.
Since today is World Mental Health Day – a day devoted to advocacy, awareness and education around mental health – it seems a good time for leaders to consider what they can do to look after their own health and that of their teams. Here are some practical steps they can take:
1. Recognize the symptoms
“Anxiety, depression and stress are closely related and often overlap, so it is important to learn to recognize their early signs,” says Neel Burton, a leading psychiatrist and author of new book, Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking. “These symptoms vary from one person to another, but common ones include difficulty concentrating, tearfulness, irritability or agitation, saying or doing inappropriate things, losing one’s sense of humor and perspective or retreating from social situations and neglecting outside activities and relationships.”
Since poor mental health can impair our thinking, we can struggle to recognize the signs and symptoms of it in ourselves, he continues. As a result, we may need to rely on family, friends and colleagues to tell us and we must be prepared to trust in their judgement.
Burton’s top tips for managing mental health issues include not biting off more than we can chew (“break down large tasks into smaller ones and set realistic deadlines for completing them”); spending more time with sympathetic friends and colleagues; doing more of the things we normally enjoy; going outdoors; and getting a full night’s sleep.
2. Have a mindful moment
“Our mental health affects how we think, feel and act,” says Gillian Higgins, an international criminal barrister, the founder of Practical Meditation and the author of new book, Mindfulness at Work and Home. “It helps to determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. It is, however, often ignored in the rush to ensure efficiency, output and commercial growth. With tight deadlines, clients to satisfy and incessant emails, the state of our emotional, psychological and social wellbeing can go unchecked for too long, resulting in workplace stress, anxiety and even depression.”
Higgins recommends mindfulness as a practice to maintain good mental health. “Mindfulness has existed for thousands of years and involves paying attention to moments of everyday life with curiosity and openness, on purpose,” she says. “At its core, it invites us to approach life with an attitude of gentle curiosity and kindness towards ourselves.”
Mindfulness also has the effect of increasing our resilience and compassion over time, according to Higgins, with these qualities helping us to care for our mental health. “They enable us to notice when we suffer and to respond sensitively, rather than beat ourselves up or move straight into problem-solving mode,” she says. “When we grow compassion for ourselves, and others, we are more likely to notice when those around us are faltering and in need of support.”
3. Don’t forget to daydream
“Burnout comes as a consequence of spending too long doing focused work,’ says Chris Griffiths, a creativity expert and founder of creative productivity software Ayoa. “Working without breaks overexerts us mentally. Not only do we deplete our motivation, we shut down the most creative parts of our brain. To combat this, we need to make time for focused daydreaming. Go for a walk or do some doodling – and carve out specific time to do this. By breaking up focused work with time free from pressure, you will help to maintain your mental health and boost your creativity.”
Griffiths believes that looking after their team’s mental health is a highly important part of any leader’s role. “Ensure that every individual employee feels that they are valued and purposeful in their role,” he advises. “A workforce that is comfortable with making mistakes is less likely to spend time stressing or feeling anxious about the outcome of trying their new ideas. Giving people the time and space to be creative is one of the best ways that leaders can reward their employees. It naturally enhances their sense of worth and achievement at work.”
4. Respect your core
“The way in which a business leader preserves their own mental health in the workplace is no different to the way in which they can help to preserve the sanity of their team,” observes Mark Simmonds, author of Breakdown and Repair: A Father’s Tale of Stress and Success. “The saner everybody is, the more productive they become. But we are all cut from a different cloth.”
Simmonds argues that it is important to create a working environment that is energizing to both introverts and extroverts. He also recommends that leaders make sure they understand whether they and their team members are primarily task-driven or people-driven. “Match up the people with the tasks that best satisfy their motivations,” he says.
Another important consideration, says Simmonds, is to understand your own ambition and that of others. “What expectations do you place on others around you?” he queries. “Agree different levels of ambition with different individuals to stretch people as far as they want to be stretched.”
5. Work on your physical intelligence
When your levels of the stress hormone cortisol are too high, it drags down the levels of three ‘feel good’ chemicals: dopamine (pleasure), serotonin (belonging) and oxytocin (happiness), along with the DHEA hormone (vitality). If left unaddressed, this imbalance can impact on our mental health. So, what’s the solution?
“Identify your stress triggers and what overdrive feels like in your body,” suggests Patricia Peyton, co-author of wellbeing book Physical Intelligence. “For example, you may feel tension, or a change in your breathing or heart rate. If you start to experience those triggers and symptoms, used paced breathing (regular counts of in-breaths and out-breaths) and exercise to get your heart up. Also work on your resilience by letting go of disappointments and learning from your mistakes.”
Peyton also offers the following advice to leaders: “Keep an eye out for people working too late, not taking holidays or prioritizing physical fitness, or being short-tempered or withdrawn – and have courageous conversations to address it. Balance your own goals with understanding others’ agendas, and encourage a positive, realistic, collaborative and creative attitude to change.”
6. Start at the top… then take it to the team
“Because we reward people for working hard, we sometimes devalue the opposite – downtime,” says Chris Dyer, a performance expert, speaker, consultant, founder of screening services firm PeopleG2 and author of The Power of Company Culture. “That includes needed rest and relaxation, but, when purposeful, it is something more. Opening ourselves up to deep thought and off-hours interaction sparks innovation while contributing to good mental health.”
Dyer advises leaders to schedule reflective time into their calendar because they “help us set priorities and evolve in our views”. He also emphasizes the importance of setting the right tone at the top. “People shouldn’t be expected to read emails when they are off the clock. They need time to recharge and gain from their personal relationships.”