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How far have we really come with mentally healthy workplaces?

How do “leaders” fare in the progress we have made?

In my role working with people with workplace injuries, and employers trying to improve the mental health of their workplaces, I see a number of people who have worked in leadership roles that have reached burn out – their cup is empty and they just cant give any more. Listening to their stories it has become apparent that many workplaces dont have strategies in place to assist them, most workplace mental health programs are targeted at “everyday employees” and ‘leaders’ needs are often not really factored into these programs adequately – there appears to be a different set of expectations of performance and mental agility for this group. Its like they are expected to be bulletproof and not impacted by emotional trauma, work obligations, workplace conflict and fatigue.

I ask myself – “why is it that there is such a different expectation of leaders”? If you follow Simon Sinek and his work on leadership (and many other similar commentators) the clear message is that a leaders primary role is to ensure their staff feel ‘safe’ if we want to improve workplace performance . We know, that feeling emotionally safe at work leads to staff feeling more satisfied, decreases absenteeism and presenteeism and improves performance at work – so what can be done to make leaders feel safer at work? Its not about paying them more money – that may improve fiscal safety, but wont impact work burn out and the anxiety of balancing work and life commitments.

It appears that we have a ‘cultural’ issue with the performance expectations of leaders in the workplace. Recent commentary regarding our Prime Minister taking time out is an interesting case study on our attitude to the mental health of leaders. Mainstream media and a number of other media ‘celebrities’ have espoused views regarding whether Scott Morrison attending this footy game was acceptable or not. It is clear that for many there is one set of rules they espouse for managing the mental health of the “everyday person” and another set that applies to our leaders - do we in fact see leaders as robots, expecting them to be constantly available to protect people across all areas of their life – why do they seem to be considered different to the employees that answer to them? Don’t they have mental health needs as well?

It was with interest that I noted that prior to taking his leave Scott Morrison took the step of informing Australians that he would be taking this time off. On this occasion he used his emotional intelligence and displayed his vulnerability to the nation, expressing his personal needs – actions that we applaud in the mental health space. This action had the feel of him pleading for Australians to accept his need to have time off so that he didn't get eviscerated like he did when he took time off and went overseas at Christmas time with his family. However – his courage to be vulnerable wasn’t rewarded with the understanding he had probably hoped for – because seemingly, leaders aren’t entitled to the same mental health assistance we are currently espousing is needed in workplaces.

When we teach people about emotional intelligence and taking care of their mental health we strongly encourage self care, as “you cant pour from an empty cup”. Can you imagine a person whose cup is more likely to have run dry than Scott Morrisons, or our state premiers for that matter? All of our leaders (both state and federal) have been trying to manage a never before known event, and no doubt every single one of them needs a “refresh”. I bet most of them are too scared to take time out for fear of the backlash in the media they would receive for being “off the job” (which in fact you NEVER are if you are in a leadership role). The “everyday” employee has contracts, EBA’s and unions to protect them from working endless hours and days - many eople in leadership don’t have the same protections as their contracts work outside these parameters.

How well can any leader perform when they are tired, burnt out and running on empty? Isn’t it in our best interest to have our leaders operating with the best mental health possible – especially when they are making decisions that can have a far reaching impact on us, yet we continue to have expectations of leaders within many businesses that they just have to ‘power on’ . The use of language that is derisive and implies they are weak if they express a need for a break or assistance has a substantial impact on them emotionally and contributes to their ‘stress response’ and mental health.

If programs aimed at improving mental health in the workplace don’t authentically include the mental health needs of the businesses leaders, not only will we continue to see people in leadership roles suffer ‘burn out’ and other related mental health conditions, we are not setting the necessary parameters to build a culture of an emotionally safe workplace for ‘everyday’ employees. We must inculcate the attitude that the mental health of everyone – all the way to the top is important to achieving a mentally healthy and productive workplace.


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