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Jan Gooding 

Leading on good mental health

Leading on good mental health

Jan Gooding discusses the mental health toll on leaders and how adopting a coaching mindset can help

No leader worth their salt can ignore the emerging mental health emergency. The more prolonged the Covid-19 health crisis, the greater the impact on people’s mental well-being will be. It is already happening. And the way in which our work colleagues respond will be very individual with the emergence of diverse and complex needs.

Many people do not feel safe, and that includes leaders. People are increasingly self-medicating with alcohol and food. Loneliness, anxiety and depression are on the rise and the statistics on how people are coping are getting worse.

I observe in my coaching that many leaders are stretched and tired, concerned about the declining energy levels of their colleagues, frustrated by constant budget re-forecasting and re-structuring conversations, whilst wondering how to truly live up the idea of ‘rebuilding better’.

The extent of ongoing remote working with all the corresponding constraints on meeting colleagues and customers in person is tough going. At a time when many organisations want to develop more inclusive cultures, the current levels of anxiety present an ongoing challenge. This is a moment when our personal values as leaders are truly put to the test by the decisions we are being called upon to make, and the kind of working environment we are fostering.

Stevie Spring, chairman of Mind, recently reiterated the importance of leaders paying attention to their own mental health - as the pre-requisite to being able to help anyone else.

As she put it: “Rather like the moment when the oxygen masks drop down on a plane in an emergency, you must put your own on first before you can be of any help to others.” That means being able to read your own mental health and putting in place the strategies that help you cope and stay steady yourself.

Taking exercise, walking away, securing ‘me time’, connecting with peers who ‘get you’ and with whom you don’t have to mask your feelings, opening up, enquiring about and listening to others are all top tips for developing personal coping strategies.

I have suffered from periodic bouts of depression throughout my career. Now, as a matter of routine, whatever the weather, my day starts by walking my bouncy Labrador/Irish Setter crossbreed Maggi.

Given the current imperative of home working I also have her company and affection through most of the rest of the day. I have learnt to make breaks to listen to books on audible to take my mind off the news cycle and the everyday. I plan and prioritise time with family and friends and have promised myself never to cancel them because of work.

These are some of the things that help me to keep a sense of equilibrium and control. But I must be honest, I find the current lack of face-to-face contact with people very difficult.

I know it affects my creativity, productivity and sense of optimism. I take great comfort in knowing that I am not alone with that feeling. So, I am grateful for every person who has recently agreed to meeting me in person in spite of the inevitable risks that go with it.

I am told that one of the observable symptoms of our declining mental health is the extent to which people are increasingly turning off their cameras on video conferencing calls.

They can find the exposure and requirement to perform exhausting, particularly if they are having a bad day. People can feel anxious about their appearance on screen, pressure to seem cheerful, rooted in an uncomfortable chair, excluded by the natural extraverts on the call, and worried about others looking into their home life.

Insisting people turn on their camera isn’t likely to help. But noticing who has theirs off and finding a way to check-up on them probably will.

The majority of people who are experiencing mental health issues find it almost impossible to find the words to share their vulnerability. Evidence shows this is particularly true of men.

Mental health experts consistently describe the perceived shame and stigma of ‘not coping’ as the biggest barrier to creating a positive environment for mental well-being. It takes kindness and trusting relationships to encourage disclosure.

Of course, I would say this wouldn’t I, but never has there been a time when leadership coaching has been so important. The scheduled provision of guaranteed time to reflect and think things through with someone you regard as your equal is important support for any leader. In my experience, at times like this, it can be hard for leaders to express their personal fears, vulnerability and doubts.

Putting coaching in place is one way leaders make the space to speak their mind in confidence and without interruption, judgement or consequences. A coaching session gives leaders the opportunity to pause, to explore what is on their mind and review everything they want to take into consideration before coming to any firm conclusions. Let alone feeling ready to take others on the journey ahead.

But just as leaders can benefit from the support of personal coaching, they can also support others by developing their own skills as coaching leaders. I would suggest that starts with acknowledging that people are all in different places right now. So, it will require making the effort to tune into that diversity of mood by listening to what individuals have to say, in person and in private. The most helpful insight is unlikely to come from staff surveys.

If we look at life as a flowing river, we have all just had the equivalent experience of going over a waterfall without any warning. Because it’s a waterfall it means we can’t go back up. The only way is forward.

Typically, at the base of a waterfall, there are enormous whirlpools. It is imperative that we find or create a different river that will take us out of the whirlpool for life to continue. Otherwise we will simply stay stuck and without any sense of agency.

Most people feel they are still in the middle of the whirlpool. This causes them to remain frightened, and in survival mode. However, there will be some people who are already starting to see different tributaries and ways of moving on. Of course, in such a crisis it is not necessarily the leader who knows how to get out of it. But, by adopting a coaching mindset, leaders should be able to draw out the possible options available from everyone around them and co-create a plan for moving forward together.

I was struck by an image posted on Twitter last week by Alan Rusbridger, in his capacity as principal of Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford University.

It was a picture of him sitting in a field on a camping chair in a large tent with a rug wrapped round his legs. There was a small table with a mug of coffee and another socially distanced empty chair. He wrote: ‘Didn’t feel right to greet 230 freshers to Lady Margaret Hall through individual Zoom meetings. So here I am in my field office in my thermals seeing them all one-on-one in a bracing fresh air experience. And lovely they are….’

I found it such an inspiring and empathetic act of leadership. I wonder what our own equivalent should be over the coming months to help nurture the mental health of those around us.

Jan Gooding is one of the UK's best-known brand marketers, having worked with the likes of Aviva, BT, British Gas, Diageo, and Unilever. She is an executive coach, the chair of PAMCo, Given (London), the president of the Market Research Society, and the former chair of Stonewall. She writes for Mediatel News each month.

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