Healthy Leaders


Mental Health and Leading When You Are Unwell: Part II

Sean SwabySean Swaby

This is the second part in a two part series on mental health and leading.

Mental Health: How to Lead Well When You Are Unwell: Part 1

Depression: An occupational hazard of leadership?

For some fields, depression is an occupational hazard of leadership. A 2007 survey of 21 fields found that certain disciplines are more prone to depression. If you are a leader in the health services, in the service industry, in the arts or in education you are more likely to experience depression.

If that is not enough to get your attention, perhaps knowing that your staff is concerned about your health may tip you in the direction of taking care of yourself. According to a survey by Healthy Companies International, 17% of 509 employees surveyed were at least somewhat worried about the health of their manager.

“Everyone’s health is essential to top performance, including the boss’s. With all that companies have to deal with… it’s disturbing to learn that employees also have to worry about their superior’s health.” (Stephen Parker, President, Healthy Companies International)

Your story and your health

Some workplaces can be progressive and supportive, while others may ignore the mental health of their leaders. The wise leader understands their professional and personal hurdles and builds a set of mental health practices to maintain their wellness.

Leadership is being in control of your story. (David Grauwiler, Executive Director of the Canadian Mental Health Association of Alberta)

What does “story” have to do with mental health? Plenty. Your story consists of your feelings, the mental images that play in your mind, and the way that you talk to yourself. Your internal world is like soil for your mental health.

Being healthy is all in your head. At least, it begins in your head.

What follows is a list of resources, a menu of practices to promote your mental health as a leader.  You will need to tailor your plan depending on your health history, your stress level and current needs. Choose one or two and begin with what you need.

  1. Pay attention.

You pay for day-care, pay for groceries and you pay for parking. You may forget that you have to pay attention, but not with cash. How do you invest in your attention? Attention is something that will reward you if you keep it in the present. Several techniques can help you to pay attention and renew your mental and emotional energy.

  1. Exercise

Exercise can move your body and your spirit. It will reduce your stress, anxiety, depression, and will build up your self-discipline along with your ability to pay attention (see #1).

  1. Cultivate outlets that have nothing to do with your day job.

Take up a hobby like woodworking, walking in the woods, or listening to music. Additional outlets could be volunteering in the areas of your other passions, or team sports. When you learn to lose yourself for a few hours a week, it is like a mental reset, crucial for renewing your energy.

  1. Surround yourself with people who are good for you.

We all know this, but do you have another person that you can bare your soul to? This can be one of the best investments that you make for your mental health.

  1. Spend time outside during your workday.

Could be a nearby park or a patio close to your office. You may need to plan regular trips to the mountains or the lake to give yourself a longer break.

  1. Allow yourself to be taken care of.

Staff, colleagues and family may not know all of the details of your health status, but they will pick up when you need support. You have needs and your staff can help out when your energy is off. Receiving is a gift that we can give to others.

One thing to consider is that if you are a rock, you may be perceived as being unapproachable. Accepting support is wise and may be all that you need to do. The tough part is that in order to receive help, you have to drop your guard and this can be difficult for leaders.

  1. Nurture a healthy internal world.

Every person has an internal environment. Being intentional with the TV you watch, the music you listen to, the books you read and the way you talk to yourself can make a huge difference.

“We are the curators of our lives, our own story,” says Dave Grauwiler. When you are struggling, your internal dialogue may become unhelpful. Reading books, listening to music, laughter and joy, exercise and healthy self-talk are each important to building a healthy internal dialogue.

  1. Sometimes you are not enough and you need another person for support.

Talking to a friend whom you trust or a therapist can help you to change the story of your life and the story of your leadership.

  1. Team check-ins can be a lifeline.

Asking individually and as a team how people are doing can create a safe space for you and your team.

  1. Personal check-in.

The pen can be as powerful as a pill. Journaling your intentions, experiences and your emotions can help reduce stress, increase problem solving and clarity. Journaling has no rules and can be multi-sensory: include doodles, snippets from books and articles, along with clipped photos.

  1. Give room for a bad day.

What about giving yourself permission for a bad day? A bad day is not a definition of a staff’s performance, nor will it define yours. Now and then, we all need a bad day.

  1. Get lost.

Sometimes you need a time away from work. A mental health day or a vacation may be what you need. Sometimes you need to step away for your own health. Consulting a doctor or a therapist can help you decide when you need to take a leave. People understand when you need to take time for yourself; it will help you to be the best leader you can be.

  1. Get a physical.

A yearly physical is a key to your physical and mental health. Is it time for yours?

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Sean Swaby