Most of us would understand that if we had lots of donuts and cigarettes every day, we would, at some point, have serious physical health issues. The question is, do you know what you may be doing every day that could contribute to serious mental health issues? As a leader, you need to understand this. A 2022 Gallup poll reports that the rate of anxiety and depression in the workplace is estimated to be costing the USA $47.6 billion annually in lost productivity. If, as leaders, we don’t face the increase in mental ill health, we won’t be able to achieve what we aspire to, as we won’t have the healthy, productive, engaged workforce that we need.
Mental ill health has long sat in a ‘taboo’ subject area. We can thank Covid for bringing this to a more central discussion, with a realization of how at risk we all are when we face increasing uncertainty/lack of security. In the past, it was whispered about with sympathy for those who ‘weren’t well’ as if this was something that could never happen to those talking about it. Mental ill health, however, is similar to physical ill health. Some people are unfortunately born with, have a genetic predisposition for, or are exposed to trauma that results in serious physical or mental ill health. But the majority of ailments we are faced with physically, and the wave of anxiety and depression we are seeing is lifestyle induced.
How our animal brain influences our mental health
While there is so much we still need to learn and understand about our brain, it is useful as a leader to understand some of the fundamentals of how our brain operates. From this, you can understand the basics that every one of us needs to look after our mental health. At a simplistic level, we can think of our brains as split into a thinking brain (the part we are most aware of) and our animal brain (the part that is hard-wired for our survival and overseas such functions as our breathing and temperature regulation, amongst other things). This animal’s brain is hard-wired for connection. it is also hard-wired to seek patterns. There is so much information for our brains to absorb in the world. Patterns help us clump information together to make sense of it all. This animal’s brain is smart. It triggers the release of different chemicals to help regulate us around these patterns.
- Cortisol – gets triggered when things are different/don’t look right – it puts us on alert to get ready for a fight/flight. In short spurts, it is really useful to get us to make a different decision. Too much of it on an ongoing basis, however, is a significant contributor to poor mental health. So we need three other chemicals to help balance it out.
- Oxytocin – our brains have long understood that there is safety in numbers. When we have ‘our tribe’ around us, even when things look a bit different, we feel protected in the tribe. It helps us relax and focus on the task at hand. This sense of belonging is just as important in a work context as at home. Work isn’t just a task. If our brains don’t recognize safety, they won’t function the way they need to solve problems effectively.
- Serotonin – feeling safe, though, isn’t enough, we need to feel valued for what we contribute to our tribe and that we have a place in the tribe.
- Dopamine – remember, our brains are pattern-seeking. Finding patterns is learning, and learning is food for the brain. Dopamine plays an important function in rewarding us. It makes us feel good, a reward for achieving/working out a pattern. This feel-good factor is great. But, like cortisol, too much is not a good thing.
Our brains are hard-wired for survival; just like nature, they seek to balance us. And these four chemicals, in the right combination, help improve our mental health.
The juggle we need to master as a leader to improve mental health
I give this background as I think it is useful as leaders to understand this science as a starting point for your everyday choices. While everyone has an individual responsibility for their mental health, the way that everyone has a responsibility for their physical health, we influence people’s mental health through the culture and design of work. If you want a successful career as a leader, you cannot put mental health in a box that isn’t your problem. You can’t see it as an individual problem and can’t outsource it to the People and Culture department to ‘do stuff’. You make choices, and those choices have a ripple effect. A 2019 Deloitte White paper researching the future of work has identified that in this complex world of the 21st century, the so-called ‘soft’ skills of human interaction are far more important than technical skills. If you want the best results, your ability to connect with others and create a supportive environment for them is critical.
To do, to serve, and to be.
- To do: we are employed to do a job and to do that job through other people. If we don’t deliver on what we have been asked to do, we will no longer have that job. So we have to look at how we design that work, how we measure that work, to make sure we are setting people up to succeed.
- To serve: once we are clear on the work design, we need to think about who we have on the team. Do we have the right individuals in the right combination with the right skill sets? What are their relationships with each other like? How do we foster the trust and connection needed in this team to complete the work? How are you making sure they feel safe (triggering oxytocin)? Valued (triggering serotonin)? And learning (triggering dopamine?
- To be: We should start leadership here at the first ball about you as an individual. To bring the best out in others, you need to make choices that trigger a healthy combination of these four chemicals within your brain to look after yourself. Too many leaders see the self part as separate. Something you seek outside of work. But you need to experience this blend of chemicals at work as much as anyone else to be your best and help bring out the best in others.
So where to now?
To be a successful leader in this complex and uncertain 21st century, you need to understand and influence your own and others’ mental health. We can no longer see this as someone else’s responsibility or an individual problem. We need to appreciate the influence we can have as role models and as shapers of culture and connection in the workplace. We have the power to trigger all of these chemicals in others’ brains, and we need to do this in an intentional way. This is how we improve mental health AND performance. And if you don’t, you’ll get left behind.
This article can only whet your appetite (hopefully) for exploring what you can do more. Want to know what you can actually do about it? Read Mentally at Work for simple, pragmatic tips at an individual, team, and task level to fundamentally improve the well-being of you, your team, AND your organization’s performance.
About the author
Genevieve Hawkins trained as an Occupational Therapist and is now a senior executive and author of Mentally at Work. She is passionate about helping leaders get curious, get connected, and contribute to reversing the trend of mental illness in the developed world, so we can collectively go on to solve the complex problems we currently face in the world. Only when we are mentally healthy can our brains quieten enough to connect, listen to others, and solve problems.