Mental health in the workplace – leaders, this one’s on you


Authentic and vulnerable leadership breeds an energised, productive and creative workforce, writes Peter Laburn.

Anxiety, fear, uncertainty and unrealistic pressure. Toxic environments, difficult managers, verbal abuse and sexual harassment. The mental health issues that people face in the workplace today are numerous and various. They range from extreme stress to extreme boredom, and are punctuated by all of the characteristics listed above and more.

What are the ramifications of these issues? What effect do they have on the individuals concerned and on businesses as a whole? And, most importantly of all, whose responsibility is it to address them?

Setting the scene: The worst workplaces today

The World Health Organization has a personality diagnostic checklist that stipulates six factors that indicate psychopathic behaviour. The list includes callous lack of concern for the feelings of others; incapacity to maintain enduring relationships; reckless disregard for the safety of others; deceitfulness, repeated lying and conning others for profit; incapacity to experience guilt; and failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviours.

Gaze through a business lens and it isn’t hard to see how many of these characteristics apply to the world’s major corporates. In some cases, all are relevant. The dangerous combination of global market uncertainty, the relentless pursuit of profit, the pressures to do more with less, and especially unethical leadership, all too often create psychopathic workspaces that place wealth over wellbeing.

The result is working environments that are so stressful they can make people physically, mentally and emotionally ill: Environments that break down the human spirit, and lead to depression, burnout, and even hospitalisation. From a business perspective they drive high turnover, increase recruitment and retention costs, and damage reputations.

On the other end of the spectrum, these spaces can lead to apathetic and detached workers. In a recent employee engagement survey, analytics and advisory company Gallup found that, on average, 13 percent of employees across all levels of businesses are fully engaged, 54 percent are simply enrolled (they arrive on time and they leave on time, and they do what they’re told), and 33 percent are functionally disengaged.

This means that roughly 87 percent of employees sit on the “quiet quitting” spectrum. The term only came into daily use in 2022 (though the phenomenon has been around for years), but it succinctly describes employees who do only what is expected of them at work – or less. It too is a symptom of toxic environments, and has its own effects on mental health. Quiet quitting suffocates creativity, hinders innovation, and deadens morale. Real quitting often follows hot on its heels.

Taking responsibility: The role of authentic, vulnerable leadership

If you’re a leader in your organisation: addressing these issues starts with you – particularly if you’re the CEO, but equally so if you’re in any executive or managerial position. You set the tone for the behaviour that is tolerated and the culture you create, and have to continuously ask yourself: what are you doing to prioritise the mental health of your employees. And, more importantly, who are you being in this process?

Many businesses might have made this a KPI, since incentivisation remains a primary driver of corporate action. And while there are benefits to this approach, it cannot be mere lip service or a box-ticking exercise. Measuring and managing the ways in which you keep your people informed, inspired and engaged has to be authentic.

And this starts with you. It starts with you being authentically yourself.

Authenticity is the bedrock of strong leadership. It demonstrates a heightened level of self-awareness and self-regulation, and manifests as granting permission for everyone to be authentically themselves in turn. Its corollary is vulnerability, which allows for strengths and weaknesses, and room for improvement and growth. Being an authentic, vulnerable leader enhances credibility, engenders trust, nurtures relationships, and helps to eradicate detrimental behaviours in the workplace.

This filtering down is a gradual process – but it is also organic, almost contagious. The more authenticity and vulnerability are encouraged, in leaders and employees alike, the more people are likely to feel accepted and adequately supported.

Leadership is a state of being. It’s not a state of doing. It’s who you are as a human all day every day, and encompasses every interaction you have with your colleagues and employees. And if this state of being is authentic and vulnerable, and if it involves a commitment to eradicating toxicity from your working environment, only then can you hope to nurture an energised, productive and creative workforce in an otherwise complex business world.

Peter Laburn is the founder of the transformational leadership movement, Lead with Humanity, and the author of the pioneering book, Leading with Humanity.

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