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Managers and Leaders Must Focus On Their Own Mental Health to Better Support Their Employees

By: The RethinkCare Team

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Woman drinking coffee and using laptop at her desk

To support workers, leaders need to start with themselves and model wellness strategies.

The message of the client panel during the mental health summit, “Addressing Your Employees’ Professional, Personal & Parenting Needs: Bringing Visibility to the Invisible,” was clear. The experts agreed that today’s leaders and supervisors need to focus on their own mental health and to set the tone for wellbeing and support for their employees.

Among those experts were Dr. Tara Cousineau, of Harvard University and founder of BodiMojo, which supports teen mental health; Sarah Lecuna, senior global benefits manager for Intuit; and Christine Wenger, national manager for enterprise change management for Toyota Financial Services.

Wenger reminded participants that there’s a reason you put your oxygen mask on first when a plane is going down. You can’t help others without first helping yourself, and “a stressed-out manager helps no one be well.”

Good leaders can reduce the rate of employee burnout

Wenger, Lecuna and Cousineau discussed the importance of creating a company culture of openness and well-being. Any model of getting back into a physical office after the pandemic will have pros and cons for every employee, depending on their specific needs. More than half of workers now report experiencing burnout. Actively listening to their concerns will help avoid this in the future.

For Lecuna, flexibility and managers who “walk the talk” are necessary for a workplace that is constantly changing, as it will continue to this year.

She advises mindfulness breaks, starting meetings with breathing exercises and coaching for a return—or not—to a physical office. But the biggest tool is “our leaders and having them model behavior.” That looks like talking about your own self-care and allowing your team to do the same.

Managers must reduce stigma around mental illness

Cousineau said as a clinician, she’s seen a lot in last year: burnout, exhaustion, cynicism, and lack of agency. And that has manifested in a full-body experience for many workers in what she called “the year of little traumas.” In so much uncertainty, employees have reevaluated their lives and what is possible moving forward.

The pandemic literally put us in each other’s living rooms. Virtual work has blurred the lines between our professional, personal and parenting selves. For working moms and dads, especially, coming back to the workplace without burning out on re-entry will be tough.

Fear of stigma has prevented some from seeking help or having a real, open discussion with their employers about wellness.

This shared pandemic crisis allows us to see that we all need help sometimes, she said, and that is not a weakness. Managers who are open and curious, non-judgmental, and empathetic can help reduce the stigma for their employees in the future.

The best supervisors are compassionate

Cousineau said what has really struck her is how the pandemic continues to amplify vulnerabilities.

“For managers, really, the call is to demonstrate personally kindness, gratitude, and making space to be sincere,” she said.

That’s not necessarily how people are trained, but retraining yourself and checking in on your biases and judgments can have a huge impact. And while managers are served well to check in on themselves, she noted that emotions are contagious. The kindest and most generous employees impact their organization’s culture. Employees and managers who engage in self-care and have wellness resources are better poised to do that.

So, she said, if you do just one thing at work tomorrow, let it be a measure of appreciation for your team or a extraordinary leader.

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