11 habits to help leaders to safeguard their mental health

Dr Paddy Pampallis says the time is now for a more human type of leader.

  • Dr Paddy Pampallis is the CEO, founder and faculty head of The Coaching Centre and The Integral Africa institute

I received a frantic call late one evening from one of the most inspiring and competent leaders I have worked with, and what unfolded was a story of complete overwhelm. He was being asked to take on two additional roles due to downsizing, while also deciding who would go and who would stay.

All of this had to be done quickly, with no time to think through options for those who would have to go. Similar stories, from different companies and different perspectives, have been told to me over the past year, with so many people struggling to navigate these difficult times.

In companies that successfully pivoted to stay relevant, there has been an accelerated change, which has resulted in a relentless push for leaders to take on more.

Some of the side-effects of this include compromised sleep negatively impacting brain functioning, and excessive screen time impairing the neocortex in the brain, which is responsible for logic and rational thinking.

Alcohol intake and the use of medication have increased. Relationships and families are under severe strain. People have had to adjust and there is now unprecedented disorientation. People are struggling to successfully navigate this new normal.

In a recent survey conducted across a large financial institution it was found that the key risk to their business was expected to be the mental health of their employees – not cybersecurity – but the wellbeing of their people.

The way we respond to difficulty/crisis is dependent on our interior reality, mindset, capacity and context, role and responsibility and the capacity to reflect, slow down, manage anxiety and ongoing tensions as part of life.

Kevin Kelly (Wired Magazine) mentions that we “are morphing so fast that our ability to invent new things outpaces the rate at which we can civilize them”. We do not have the means for understanding them and their impact.

We have not been educated for these times: our education and training still focuses on hard (technical) skills and a rather linear and partial approach to the various aspects of business life.

One of the markers of human evolution is the extension of our “circle of care and concern”. This is a later stage capacity in which purpose is connected directly to wellbeing (University. of Wisconsin) as it feeds into an ability to stay aware, to connect, to use insight. We may struggle to change cultures; what we can work with is ourselves.

We know habit is a practice – not a wish! What can we do?

  1. Pause, when that under-voice starts shouting, and listen to it. What does it need from you right now: and if not now, when? Do this daily.
  2. Set up times, bi-weekly, with your teams to simply connect, without an agenda.
  3. See the human on the other side of the screen: how will they know they have been seen?
  4. Take formalised (diarised) breaks – the brain needs the variety and the release. Schedule 45-minute meetings rather than hour long meetings and take 15 minutes to stretch, breathe, get up and walk around the room to activate creativity, process and restore.
  5. Engage in savouring practices – look at the sky, hold your child’s hand, have a cup of tea while listening to beautiful music. Focus on nothing else during this time, just exactly what you are doing, and the senses: smell, touch, taste, hearing, seeing.
  6. Make sure your sleep hygiene is in place. Avoid screens for at least an hour (preferably more) before you go to sleep so that your brain can signal for melatonin to be produced, which aids sleep.
  7. Exercise regularly. If you need motivation, join a virtual class or go to the gym, but just walking yourself into ease, in nature if you can, is healing.
  8. Eat the food that is good medicine for your body and ensure you are nourishing your body.
  9. Do nothing – intentionally.
  10. Be accountable to yourself: keep a short diary of improvements – this is not a quick fix – it’s a lifestyle.
  11. Connect with a coach to talk through your interior well-being, the quality of relationships, the decisions and actions that must be taken, and the context in which it all happens.

If we do not learn to be more fully human now, we will never be ready enough for what is to come. The capacity to learn is a gift, the ability to learn is a skill, the willingness to learn is a choice. It is time now for a new type of leader