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Men In Leadership Roles Should Become Better Mental Health Ambassadors

Mental wellness is simply too important to be left to HR alone!

In the knowledge economy, organisations compete fiercely for the best brains and talents in their industry. However, businesses that rely primarily on intellectual wealth also face higher risks from mental stress in the workplace. Worldwide, conditions like burnout, depression and anxiety take a huge toll on employee productivity and health. India too, could see over $1 trillion in losses between 2012 and 2030 due to mental health conditions, according to the WHO. Yet, wherever you look, workplace mental wellbeing initiatives are more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

Every employee has probably been told at some point that the “CEO’s office doors are always open for anyone who wants to talk”. However, if they’re serious about combating the mental health pandemic, CEOs and other top leaders—especially men among them—have to walk the talk on evangelising mental well-being at the workplace.

Why Men?

There is a persistent misconception that men are better at handling business, finance or strategy functions than they are at people-related roles. This gendered distribution of workplace roles is also why human resources or communications departments tend to attract fewer men (although this is gradually changing). For the most part, male leaders are happy to conduct sales reviews or give pep talks to employees, while leaving day-to-day people management (of which mental well-being is a part) mainly to their colleagues in HR.

But this could be part of the problem. Various studies estimate that 40-50% Indian employees could be experiencing depression or anxiety at work. In a recent pan-industry survey of 3000 Indian workers, 22% of employees admitted that their productivity was low because of overwork and stress.

If we want to help people become psychologically resilient and healthy, male leaders should step and work along side their colleagues, and themselves become ambassadors for better mental health.

It is a fact that when CEOs and entrepreneurs comment on an important topic—whether it is the state of the economy or the future of their industry—their words move markets and mindsets. People sit up and listen.

The opinions of leaders influence culture and policies, both within their own firms and outside. Thus, the process of building more empathic and open organisations starts with leaders using their voices to build better workplace culture.

Like the cliché goes, with great power comes responsibility. Workplace mental health is broken, and it’s high time male leaders stood up and used their power and influence to address this massive crisis. Here’s how they can do that.

1. Stand by the ‘open door’ policy. Once, the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl received a late-night call from a woman in distress. He eventually succeeded in convincing her not to take the drastic step. The next day, she told him that it wasn’t his reasoning that convinced her, but the fact that the celebrated doctor had, even at 3 am, listened patiently to her and offered encouragement. Sometimes, all a distraught person needs is the sympathetic ear of someone they respect. And who commands more respect than the top boss?

2. Say ‘it’s ok to talk’—starting with yourself: Male leaders often project a superhuman ability to be ‘on’ all the time. A leader with boundless energy is admirable, but he may also be telling his staff that showing vulnerability is a big ‘no’. On the other hand, hearing leaders (who are among the most stressed people in any workplace) talk about their own struggles or experiences with mental health, often helps others lower their guard and come forward to speak about their own problems.

3. Frame better policies. Leaders can also ‘walk the talk’ on mental wellness in multiple ways: by setting up employee assistance programmes, offering support for therapy costs, organising regular surveys and check-ups, making mental health a part of learning and development initiatives, and taking complaints related to workplace harassment or bullying seriously.

4. Communicate clearly. Sometimes, the subtle signals leaders send—such as praising employees who take no holidays; promoting achievers known for having obnoxious attitudes; or making sarcastic jibes about someone who claims to have a mental health issue — feed into a toxic-masculine version of the workplace. When it comes to mental health, leaders must communicate clearly and consistently. If ‘hours spent at desk’ are a criterion for promotion, state it clearly, rather than denying it and then penalising people for not clocking twelve hours a day.

5. Invest in continuous training of your managers. Managers and leaders in organisations today, particularly with COVID19 are in tremendous pressure – both to achieve business objectives and balance it with their team’s wellbeing. Not one is equipped to handle change at such a massive level. CEOs can support their teams by helping them learn the tools and frameworks for building resilient organisations. Managers at every level need to be aware and trained in building a psychologically safe work environment, even when employees are working from home. They also need to be provided frameworks to communicate with empathy, identify early signs and provide timely support. A WHO-led study estimated that every US$ 1 invested in scaling up treatment for common mental wellbeing returns health and productivity benefits worth US$ 4. Good bosses understand that advocating better mental health is not only an important leadership trait, but also profitable for their organisations. It also makes the difference between the survival and collapse of teams in an increasingly stress-prone world.


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