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Why every leader and organisation must create a mentally healthy workplace

Organisations pay a terrible economic, human and social price from anxiety and depression in the workplace that is preventable.

March 20, 2021 / 09:27 AM IST

Some leaders lap up the latest leadership stories – you used to see them in airport bookshops – all with zingy titles like ‘how to execute’ or ‘8 steps to transformation’ or ‘leadership lessons of Gengis Khan’.

The reason they sell is that leaders are under immense pressure to demonstrate results in rapid time, but they don’t have time to explore and test ideas – they fall for a simple formula for success. Sadly, most of these books are only superficial anecdotes, perpetuating the myth of the heroic leader – and lacking any sound research or evidence to back up their ideas.

Given my scorn for faddish management books, I never intended to write a book on leadership. But when I stopped running leadership programmes after 20 years, my former colleagues and clients clamoured for a summary of the stories and the evidence that I used. I started writing ‘my article’.

I never intended to write a book about leadership, because my bright idea seemed much simpler and addressed only a small (but influential) audience. I would write down the stories I told of my own and other leaders’ experiences, draw out the lessons for all leaders – and back each element of advice with solid academic research, not just ‘I think’.

My intended audience was the elite group of decision-makers and advisers who find themselves shaping organisational change programmes: chief executives and general managers, management consultants and project managers, from corporations, government, professional services and public services.

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Real-world leadership needed more than a short article

As I began writing, I realised that I was bringing together a set of ideas that I had never seen together in a leadership article or book. I had to explain why the complex systems of organisations behave in ways we don’t expect; how three groups of leaders – senior leaders, frontline leaders and management teams – have to work together to accomplish change; how leaders need to learn from other leaders and make mistakes; and how organisational learning, belonging and mental health are the responsibilities of leaders.

Could I explain this complexity in a simple and compelling way? Not in one brief, complex article using jargon known only to the organisational and leadership elite. First, I added more context and stories to illustrate my points and explained rather than using jargon… slowly ‘the article’ was becoming ‘the book’. Second, the pandemic struck.

The pandemic changes everything – we are all leaders now

Suddenly everyone exercised leadership – in schools, small businesses, families, charities, community groups, faith groups … as well as in the traditional big organisations of companies, health systems and public services. We all talk about the same issues – trust in our leaders, learning from frontline workers, unfamiliar new roles, experimenting with new processes, shortages, inequalities, assuaging anxieties, dealing with loss, and supporting our communities.

In most countries unused to war or famine or disease, the pandemic has been a uniquely universal experience of change. Change used to be manageable, because it came in two versions:

Up close and personal – but episodic and isolated
When organisations embark on change, the impact on their people is often direct and significant. For some, there is upside and opportunities, for others losses – economic or emotional. Crucially, unless you are inside the organisation, you are merely a bystander.

Incremental and impersonal – but continuous and relentless

Society continually changes with economic, social, technological trends. For a few, these trends will have an immediate and often negative impact. Crucially, unless you are unlucky enough to be singularly vulnerable, you have time and resources to manage and adjust.

Pre-pandemic, these manageable versions of change meant leaders within organisations could cope. Change was ‘a managed project’ and didn’t affect everyone at the same time or for an extended period. Take off these limits, as the pandemic and its aftermath did, and change is no longer contained and manageable:

Change is simultaneously up close and personal – and also continuous and relentless.

There are no bystanders – we have many more leaders of change in more diverse organizations.

Learning from effective leadership of change is vital – traditional leadership models have already failed.

The audience for my book was no longer a narrow elite of leaders in big organisations – it is all of us. During the crisis, we observed careless, rushed statements and initiatives by governments and businesses that assumed ‘business as usual’ and relied on their leaders’ past experience, even where it was rapidly overtaken in the new situation. Instead of the heroic individual leader or the slick central initiative, effective leadership of change requires leadership at all levels.

Senior leaders give broad direction and support, frontline leaders make the daily trade-offs to keep operations stable, while management teams allocate time and resources to build and embed new capabilities. The core theme of A Question Of Leadership is leaders asking powerful questions rather than rushing to provide all the answers – even when their people want to be handed ‘the answer’.

Leadership encompasses purpose, belonging and mentally healthy workplaces 

The pandemic leaves all organisations with a legacy of widespread mental distress. Having grown up with a seriously mentally ill mother, I have always been a follower of mental health and, as it came up the agenda since 2000, I led workplace initiatives and chaired mental health charities. We all have mental health just as we have physical health – some days we are more or less healthy than others.

But organisations pay a terrible economic, human and social price from anxiety and depression in the workplace that is preventable. This is not about leaders becoming therapists – it is about applying the traditional skills of strategic leadership to invest in mentally-healthy workplaces and to encourage good management which has therapeutic effect for us all.
The most effective measure is to train line managers to handle conversations with their people who are struggling – and studies show a $5 payoff for every $1 invested. Only after the publication of my book, when I was asked to lead many webinars on leadership in the aftermath of the pandemic, did I realise that I had written the first book to recommend mentally healthy workplaces as part of leadership in every organisation.
Keith Leslie is the author of A Question Of Leadership – leading organisational change in times of crisis (Bloomsbury 2021) and a former partner of McKinsey and Deloitte. He chairs Samaritans, a 22,000-strong network of volunteers providing a 24/7 suicide prevention helpline, and Mental Health At Work who train leaders in mentally healthy workplaces.
first published: Mar 20, 2021 09:27 am

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