In recent years, mental health has become an increasingly important point of emphasis for leaders in all-size organizations. Mental health professionals and workplace health associations are increasingly working together to facilitate better and more direct discussions about the impact of workplace stress on mental health and the changes leaders can champion to address it.
But, what about those leaders? While executives, co-founders, and directors are investing in hands-on training, overhauling performance management programs, and working more closely with their teams, many are neglecting their own mental health, and the results can be dangerous.
Leaders Face Intense Pressure in the Workplace
Ascending to a leadership position doesn’t make one immune from the daily pressures of the workplace. If anything, it amplifies them. New leaders in particular may feel overwhelmed when the lives of several people sudden rely on them and the decisions they make.
Stress comes from many directions. Making the right decisions. Supporting a team of diverse individuals. Fear of second-guessing of their decisions. All of these issues weigh heavily on leaders, especially when they are new to the role.
Conflict, self-doubt, and uncertainty can supplant the positive influences in a leader’s life, all while they continue putting on a brave face for their team. Burnout becomes a very real possibility.
How to Be Aware of Your Overall Mental Health
That’s not to say that stress isn’t a normal part of the job, though. In a fast-paced environment, leaders are likely to feel tired, have bouts of extreme busyness, and struggle against new challenges. So, it can be difficult to recognize when these “normal” sources of stress become abnormal.
When does stress become exhaustion?
When does exhaustion become depression?
When does depression become chronic?
These questions can be challenging for a co-founder or executive to answer for themselves. Fortunately, there are several signs of burnout they can look for that manifest in the early stages of these issues.
How to Take Better Care of Your Mind and Body
There are several things leaders can do to create a strong foundation that supports current and future mental health. Before an issue starts to impact job performance, consider the following:
- Get More Sleep – Sleep deprivation has been linked to irritability, cognitive impairment, memory loss, symptoms similar to ADHD, and impaired judgment. In short, you need a good night’s sleep to build a foundation for physical and mental health. A good night’s sleep looks different for everyone, but most people should aim for between 6-8 hours.
- Exercise Regularly – There have been several studies showing moderate exercise has therapeutic benefits for those who suffer from anxiety and depression. It can promote neural growth, reduce inflammation and help you feel better overall. Even 15-20 minutes a day of activity can make a world of difference.
- Meditate – In a recent study in the JAMA Internal Medicine Review, mindfulness meditation was found to help reduce anxiety symptoms. It’s been repeatedly linked to mental health benefits and like exercise can be beneficial even in short daily sessions. There are many types of meditation if mindfulness doesn’t fit your schedule or lifestyle – moving meditation or even a short five minute breathing exercise can offer substantial benefits as well.
- Unplug at the End of the Day and on weekends – Unplugging from your phone and computer for the last hour or two of the day can be beneficial in many ways. It improves quality of sleep, helps your brain disconnect and refocus to end the day, and releases the stress associated with those screens.
The demand for leaders to be on and available 24/7 is greater than ever. Technology and the rapid pace of business means there are always issues to address, but it’s important for them to put their personal health first to maintain that high level of performance. This requires both self-awareness and self-responsibility, as well as support from those around them.
Seeking Help When It Gets Too Hard
This is where many leaders struggle. Even for those who are highly self-aware and recognize the signs of burnout or depression, it’s difficult to reach out and ask for help.
Leaders are people – ones with more responsibilities than many others, and they can get overwhelmed just as easily if not more so than anyone else in the organization.
Having a trusted colleague, mentor or coach they can turn to for help can be immensely valuable. This person acts as a sounding board who can help contextualize stress, provide frank feedback in high-stress situations, and provide judgment-free advice.
When should a leader do this? It’s never too early to take action.
Having a reliable person who they can turn to in times of increased anxiety can help put everything in context and keep them from getting overwhelmed in the future. Leaders should avoid the fallacy of the “strong leader” – the paragon of success and productivity who never needs help and is capable of anything.
Stress will always be there. Long nights. Angry customers. High stakes meetings. These are party of the job and will always be there.
But when those long nights make you want to never come back to the office or the angry customers create negative feelings that linger for days or even weeks after a bad phone call, it’s important to have mechanisms in place to assess the problem, communicate with a supportive colleague, partner or coach, and regain balance.