Leaders' tips for looking after your own mental health

When you have responsibility for others' wellbeing, it can be very easy to forget about yourself.

by Orianna Rosa Royle
Last Updated: 15 Oct 2020

Articles about mental health in leadership often offer tips for taking better care of employees. But it’s equally important for leaders to look after their own wellbeing.

The leader's role in the COVID-19 pandemic - having to operate amid deep uncertainty, while being expected to be the one to provide all the answers and look after everyone else's mental health - is piling an unusual type of stress on CEOs, says Tara Swart, a neuroscientist, executive coach and senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management. 

So as more restrictions are being enforced across the UK and with experts warning that there is a looming mental health crisis, here are five ways leaders can look after themselves.

Talk openly about mental health 

Pretending to be someone else is draining and harmful to your wellbeing, so Mediacom’s global COO and EMEA CEO Josh Krichefski advises leaders to bring their true selves to work. To do that, they need to create a culture where it feels okay to share how you feel. 

Krichefski kicked off a company-wide newsletter called “my mental health story” with his own story: “For me that was more brave than speaking about it at Ad Week. Sharing something very personal to the whole company, with my name attached to it, is quite powerful and impactful.”

Felix Koch, CEO EMEA  and APAC at customer agency C Space agrees that normalising conversations around mental health starts from the top. "I’m very open with my staff about the benefits of therapy and everyone at work knows I go,” he says. “I know that it doesn't work for everyone, and of course not everyone has the luxury to go, but it helped me and I want to share that”.

Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you

Investing in tools to help preserve mental health is crucial, says Anna Baréz-Brown, co-founder of Shine. The most valuable tool is the focus on self care. By unplugging and looking inwards, you can learn to better understand your emotions and make sense of them.

“I encourage everyone to dedicate time, daily, to invest in your mental health and spend time understanding how you feel and why. Then you can use this to make a conscious decision to enable you to move forward”, Baréz-Brown says.

Rest is also key to better mental health, according to Decoded’s co-founder and co-CEO, Kathryn Parsons: “We are human beings and not machines. It's okay to put the devices down, bin the Zoom calls, stop trying to be 'productive' and go and stare at a tree for a few hours”.

The sympathy window

Jon Goulding, CEO of Atomic London, uses a friend's golfing trick every morning to gather the mental strength to face the day.

"Rather than trying to simply ‘shrug off’ my negative feelings, I force myself to go through a simple three step thought process before I get out of bed - the 'sympathy window'.

"Firstly I try to analyse but not criticise the negative things that happened the day before whatever it may be. Secondly I try to channel my emotions by deciding on the one positive thing I’ll do that day to help me fix the problem. Finally I try to remind myself to stick with the plan and that the lows in business are inevitable in order for you to achieve the highs.”

The mind, body, soul approach

Recharge your mental and emotional energy by using your “physical and spiritual energy”, Baréz-Brown says. From a light run to a quick yoga session in your living room before your day begins, movement “will help to alleviate worries and stresses and do wonders for your physical and mental health”. 

To ensure he’s operating at his best mental level, founder of Supa Talent Bejay Mulenga also takes his health “very seriously” through regular exercise and staying hydrated. He blocks out two hours every morning to work on self-awareness and personal development, which includes journaling.

Get mental health training 

After around 20 years of working in the corporate world, Ian Hurst had a mental breakdown. “I just started crying. I couldn’t just ‘chin up’ anymore”, says the co-founder of We are Hummingbird. After he developed social anxiety, his employer at the time offered him support in the form of mental health first aid training.

Only 13 percent of managers in the UK have attended specific training that focused on mental health and only 11 percent of managers have received training on understanding workplace stressors. But when training to recognise the signs of poor mental health in others, Hurst recognised much of himself and found the support “life changing”.

Hurst then used his training to support colleagues, have honest conversations and break down the stigmas surrounding poor mental health in his own workplace. 

With pandemic-induced stress, it can be hard to differentiate whether your sagging lust for life is normal given the situation, or a sign of a deeper issue. You won’t be able to tackle the latter if you don’t know it’s there. 

“Now more than ever, there is a need to be able to identify the signs and symptoms of poor mental health, which can lead to suicidal behaviours” both in yourself and your team, Hurst advises.

For more mental health support and advice visit Mind.co.uk. If you are someone you know is feeling suicidal, call Samaritans – day or night, 365 days a year - for free on 116 123

Image credit: PeopleImages via Getty Images

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