The Role of Leadership in Employee Mental Health

  • Ezra
  • June 2nd, 2020

In pursuit of improved mental health, are business leaders part of the solution, or merely the embodiment of the problem?

There are certainly examples where leaders have been agents of positive change in mental health, and other examples where they are the actual source of mental health problems.

In terms of the positives, you can do no better than the example provided by António Horta-Osório.

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In January 2020, Horta-Osório, the CEO of the Lloyds Banking Group, sat down for a BBC interview to discuss leadership, mental health and business performance. On these issues, Horta-Osório knows whereof he speaks.

Leaders who actually lead on mental health

Shortly after taking over as chief executive in 2011, Horta-Osório was hospitalized for what was described at the time as a “stress leave.” In 2017, he publicly disclosed that after five days of insomnia, he checked into a private clinic to stave off a mental breakdown.

“I was not used to asking for a lot of advice or showing a lot of (emotion) because I’d been a CEO since the age of 29 and it is a very lonely job,” he told The Times back in 2017. “To go from there to this humble experience and learning to ‘share’ with someone else, yes, it required some learning, I admit.”

Horta-Osório said his experience prompted him to offer a mental health awareness program for his senior executive team and resources to train thousands of employees in mental health first aid. He also ensured that the bank’s employee health insurance included as much coverage for mental health as physical health.

The intersection of mental health and business performance

Horta-Osório was responding primarily to his own deeply personal experience. However, he was clearly also aware that mental illness is a critical business issue that all leaders must consider.

How strong is the connection between mental health and organizational success? The World Health Organization has estimated that more than 300 million working people suffer from depression, an affliction that costs the global economy more than $1 trillion US annually in lost productivity.

However, even with role models like Horta-Osório, the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace is still very pervasive. As are the ways that leaders actually contribute to mental health problems.

How some leadership styles erode mental health

The scourge of toxic leadership and a general lack of psychological safety in the workplace continues be a major workplace issue. Although there are many threats posed in the workplace, a major contributing factor is the leaders who bully, threaten or publicly demean their employees or colleagues.

One might think that the global work-from-home phenomenon would provide a respite from those leadership styles. However, bullies have apparently found a way to exact their damage even in a virtual environment. It is just as easy to bully or demean someone in a video call as it is in-person, maybe easier because of the way virtual technology can embolden and promote bad behaviour.

Leaders need to avoid adding to the stress we’re all feeling

Continued toxic leadership in a virtual work environment takes on added importance when you consider that working from home is already an incredibly inherently stressful scenario.

Recent polling by the San Francisco-based Kaiser Family Foundation – a non-profit and non-partisan think tank specializing in health issues – found that there is a steady increase in the number of Americans reporting negative mental health impacts as a result of the pandemic.

In a poll taken March 11-15, 32 per cent of respondents said they were suffering negative mental health impacts. In a similar poll taken March 25-30, that number had risen to 45 per cent.

What does all this mean for today’s business leaders? Obviously, the battle against the stigma of mental health is ongoing and leaders must play a crucial role in encouraging a more open dialogue about getting the necessary help when it’s needed the most.

However, leaders also need to be cognizant that they can contribute to mental health problems if they are abusive. Although this kind of toxic leadership is ill-advised at the best of times, it simply cannot continue at a time when mental health is already being severely tested by the pandemic.

Leaders can be powerful advocates for mental health but only if they are willing to confront their own needs and take a hard look at whether they are more a part of the problem than the solution.

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