I will begin with some common stigmas around mental health and for that, I am sharing this recent incident with you. During one of my training sessions organised by a leading manufacturing giant for new managers on Mental health & Stress Handling, the attendees told me “We have come to the training, but we haven’t told anyone in the team about it, only our manager knows.”

I got intrigued and probed further to know the reason. They said that people around are extremely judgmental about the topic of mental health and wellness. Many times we hear loose and irresponsible comments like, “Oh I am still sane” or “Why do you need it, are you okay?” or “I know how to manage myself” or “I am not mad”, when asked about equipping oneself to deal with mental health problems.  

“Recognising the need for mental well-being for oneself and others in personal and professional life and talking openly and authentically about it is one of the biggest challenges we are facing as a society in India.”

However, at the same time, it is rapidly being acknowledged by leaders that the mental wellness of employees in an organisation is a decisive factor in their overall health, resulting in increasing or decreasing productivity of the organisation. 

The Need For Mental Health Support At Workplaces

According to the survey by NMHS 2015-16, nearly 15% of Indian adults (those above 18 years) require active interventions for one or more mental health issues. Both genders are affected by various disorders, and children and adolescents are equally vulnerable to mental disorders.

Talking about adults, the workplace is considered as a second home for working professionals and they spend up to 9 hours of their time at work. Hence, it is the responsibility of leaders at the workplace to ensure that they are well-trained, aware, and considerate about looking after their teams failing. It could result in compromised mental health that will serve as a causative factor to physical illnesses like hypertension, anxiety, diabetes, depression and cardiovascular diseases, poor decision-making, insomnia, amongst others. Moreover, poor mental health can also lead to burn-outs in employees. 

The most recent situation in front of organisation leaders is a global pandemic! It has disrupted life for all and has adversely affected many working professionals. Loss of jobs, leave without pay, VRS, furlough, and pay cuts have become common terms on our various social media platforms and news channels.

I have frequently observed people’s personal stories of work loss/pay cuts/poor mental health on LinkedIn and many other platforms. Such conversations are very important, however, at the same time they show the stress, anxiety, and fear people have developed in their daily lives. We are currently in the phase of Unlock 4.0 and slowly, steadily workplaces have started to open up. People are now shifting again from WFH culture to an in-office environment which in itself is a big change again! This changing environment is filled with unreliability and scepticism, and is affecting different people in different ways. 

Amidst all such external factors of influence, a big responsibility lies on the shoulders of LEADERS! Not one, but multiple actions and activities need to be combined to tackle this worldwide issue.

5 Ways Leaders Can Build A Positive Work Environment

Let’s talk about how, we as leaders, can build a positive work environment and promote better mental health.

1. Create A Positive Relationship With Your Teams! 

One of the most common reasons for stress and weak mental health is volatility in relationships with family, friends, colleagues and superiors. As a leader, you must encourage building healthy relationships between superiors and peers. Healthy communication channels, approachable bosses and freedom of expression act as positive reinforcements for colleagues, and also helps in keeping employee motivation levels high. 

The very common statement you could hear from team members is, “My boss is very difficult to deal with” which does not mean a boss can’t be demanding, but indicates that he could be difficult to talk and express to. A sincere conversation with team members will bring the change. Occasionally, the boss may set unrealistic objectives, where an authentic and candid discussion based on facts and figures can bring better solutions. 

“As a leader, we must condemn an environment of fear and bossiness!”

2. Neither Blame & Shame Nor Encourage Self Blame & Shame 

Performance measurement and management are one of the core responsibilities of managers. As a manager myself, I have seen that not everyone is equipped in ways to handle a weak performance. I have witnessed managers being biased based on the output of team members. While it is one of the major goals of an organisation, it is a sensitive process too.

How you make your team members feel valued and encourage them to perform better depends on how well you understand what the reason behind their weak results are: 

Praise In Public, Reprimand In Person

It is natural for anyone to react adversely to blame and shame. It is also considered as an act of hostility and whining, or sometimes a personal dislike for a person, although the same criticism if done in person in an articulated manner that directs towards problem-solving instead of only pointing out the problem leads to receptiveness. Ask questions like: “How can we do this differently?”, “What actions can I and your immediate team members take to help you achieve this?”. 

Identify Patterns & Take Actions

Some people have a habit of self-sabotaging actions taken by them or others, especially related to failures. They feel ashamed of themselves or somehow responsible for their condition. This pattern could lead to withdrawal or self-isolation, which in turn may result in team members ignoring or excluding them. As a leader, be prompt in identifying such patterns and use reinforcement of positive statements like “You are a valuable resource to the organisation”, “Your positive qualities have so far helped you to achieve XYZ, and you should focus on building your strengths”.  

Develop Listening Capabilities 

It is a fact that the best leaders have been good orators, but great listeners. The secret behind successful teams is how well they are heard; it is human nature to be more engaged when one’s opinions are heard. Leaders should be active listeners. It helps you watch the progress of your employees’ step by step, which would help you to know them better. Knowing your employees well is a process and it helps immensely to act appropriately when they are dealing with a crisis or any mental health issues.

Introduce Flexible Work Policies

Let us take an example of the current pandemic. Having a flexible work policy, and liberty to WFH when required gives a morale boost to employees and helps them manage different aspects of their life better. The fear of contracting the COVID-19 while travelling, and in turn infecting their own family is a nightmare any company can spare them. Thus leaders/managers should focus more on qualitative delivery than quantitative. Such policies can be introduced on a situational basis or a permanent basis.

Uphold Work-Life Balance 

Productivity is often equated to the time invested, but in reality, it is exactly the opposite. Have provisions for mandatory leaves, employee engagement programs, employee’s family engagement programs, learning and development programs, and fun and physical activities to ensure that you are contributing to the overall development of an employee.

3. Recognise Early Signs & Symptoms Of Mental Health Issues In Employees 

Firstly, I would advise all leaders and managers of an organisation to take formal training on understanding mental health and ways to tackle it. Often, a shallow understanding of the subject leads to unhealthy results and worsens the situation. It is true that just like any other physical illness, even mental illness has early signs and symptoms. As a leader, these are the signs you need to identify: 

  • Performance-related signs like frequently missing deadlines, forgetting tasks or having difficulty with normal daily tasks, taking on more than normal, volunteering for every new project
  • Attendance related signs like more frequent absences, short-term recurring patterns, unplanned absences, poor timekeeping (late for work and meetings), first in and last to leave
  • Change in customer interactions like a rise in complaints, avoiding dealing with customers
  • Concentration related signs like struggling to follow instructions, lack of focus, easily distracted
  • Change in relationships with colleagues like increase in conflict and misunderstandings, withdrawing from colleagues, sitting apart from colleagues at breaks/lunches, increase in grievances 
  • Change in attitude like being hard on themselves, sensitivity to criticism, loss of confidence, critical of others, snappier and irritable, loss of sense of humour, erratic or unacceptable behaviour 
  • Increased use of alcohol at work social events, more frequent smoking breaks, under or overeating
  • Physical changes like prolonged tiredness, frequent minor illnesses, headaches, weight loss or gain, less care over their appearance, skin disorders (eczema, rashes), stomach complaints

4. Introduce Professional Support Programs 

Organisations have started making reforms to encourage diversity and inclusion, and to better identify mental health issues; overall, there is an improvement in workplace culture.

Leaders need to make informed choices to accept a wide range of emotions of employees and enable them to duly appointed professional experts in whom they can confide, ask for help, express and feel safe while doing so. In short, they need to be more flexible, accommodative, empathetic, and open-minded towards mental health. 

Many organisations have appointed professional mental health practitioners and caregivers to their employees, and many have also introduced mandatory programs. For example, the We Care program by EY is an employee assistance program to talk and hear about the mental illness of any kind while providing a safe environment to their employees. Many organisations like TATA, Fujitsu, Herman Miller are already working towards similar programs. 

Leaders need to bring such platforms and conversations to the forefront.

5. Be Proactive Towards Boosting Positive Mental Health 

What differentiates a leader from others is their capability to have foresight! In the context of mental health, a leader does not need to wait for mental disorders to crop up in the organisations. Instead, they should plan to foster a healthier and happier workplace by providing training and support for employees to develop the required critical skills to proactively acknowledge, address and resolve problem statements on the personal and professional front. This not only equips them but also enables them to put the learning into practice at the time of crisis. I would strongly recommend such training out of many that I conduct for teams and leaders.

  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Managing Time Wisely
  • Goal Setting & Productivity 
  • Managing Team Conflict 
  • Decision Making – Problems to Opportunity  
  • Aligning Self Purpose to Organisation’s Goals 
  • How to avoid burnout 
  • Handling difficult conversations 
  • Effective & Active Listening 
  • Self Confidence & Self Love 

Fortunately, mental health which still holds a lot of stigmas and taboos around it is now becoming a talking point in the media, and many helplines are offering a professional platform to help. Leaders too, should proactively instil this awareness in their employees to maintain a healthy balance. This will not only improve productivity at work but also help them incorporate a culture of holistic well-being of an organisation. 

In the end, I would only like to say that if your team members feel excited to come to work, look forward to the assignments, and are enthusiastic towards the organisation’s growth, they are in the right place and you have established yourself as a successful leader. Congratulate yourself, and continue doing the good work! If not, then it is time to reassess and re-evaluate your actions.