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Many of today’s leaders understand that improving their employees’ mental health is good both for their people’s well-being and their business. Unfortunately, while they get the importance of mental health right, all too often they get the definition of mental health wrong.
Traditionally, mental health has been defined by what it’s not. If you’re not mentally ill, you must be mentally healthy. But mental health means much more than living without pain or disability. It is also about building strength and improving your well-being.
We already think about physical health this way. When it comes to our bodies we recognize there are different degrees of health, and that it is in our power to take action to increase our fitness and health even if we’re not currently suffering from any particular ailment.
Leaders should view mental health through the same lens, starting with a new definition of mental health that incorporates the idea that people can be more or less mentally fit. Proactive action to increase mental health not only helps us weather storms like the current pandemic better, but it also enables us to perform better at work. Mental health is just another muscle we can strengthen with effort.
Once you look at mental fitness through that lens, the next question that emerges is: How can leaders help their teams build mental fitness? Decades of science suggests a handful of simple interventions can have a real impact.
Many people think burnout is about overwork, but we know from the scientific literature that’s not entirely true. One of the biggest drivers of burnout isn’t having too much to do, but rather not knowing why you do what you do. Giving employees clarity on their role and how their specific work contributes to your overall business strategy and goals can help protect against burnout.
One of the best things leaders can do to build the mental fitness of their teams is to make sure that managers are communicating the reasoning behind decisions. Roger Martin of the Rotman School of Management at University of Toronto calls this “making strategy a conversation.” Author Simon Sinek famously talks about “knowing your why.”
Whatever way you frame the idea, the essential lesson is the same: Expecting employees to be thoughtless doers creates feelings of helplessness that make them vulnerable to burnout. Equipping them with context and a deep understanding of how their work fits into your overall mission builds mental fitness.
A key part of any manager’s job is defining, delegating and ensuring their teams get work done. That is not the same as making sure employees are working all the time. Neuroscience tells us that people are more creative and effective when they build “whitespace” into their days for reflection and rejuvenation. I call this “ inner work”: Mental acts or activities focused in your inner world to achieve a purpose or result. Rather than discouraging these “slack” periods, leaders should normalize and role model utilizing them thoughtfully.
Help your people understand that part of their jobs as knowledge workers is to take time to work on themselves, and you will build their mental fitness. Actions like giving people space between meetings and encouraging mindfulness and contemplation can have a significant impact on performance.
Decades ago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered that one of the best ways to improve someone's mental fitness and performance is to help facilitate the creation and maintenance of flow states. This feeling of being so fully engrossed in whatever you’re doing that time seems to stand still is deeply satisfying and incredibly productive. Yet many modern workplaces are actively hostile to the experience of deep, pleasurable concentration.
Constant meetings and interruptions disrupt flow. Protecting your people from the need to constantly context switch promotes it. Leaders interested in building mental fitness in their teams should therefore constantly ask themselves: Am I increasing the propensity of my people to slip into flow states or not? How can I design a work environment that facilitates flow?
The prevalence of remote work offers leaders a chance to craft new routines and procedures that promote focus. Seize that opportunity to consciously design opportunities for flow into your workplace.
Former surgeon general Vivek Murthy has long called loneliness an “epidemic” in America. Given the social isolation of the pandemic, the situation is certainly even worse now. That’s not just unpleasant. Loneliness is one of the biggest risk factors we know of for any kind of mental illness. Being lonely makes you more vulnerable to stress, anxiety and depression.
Leaders can help reduce social isolation and build mental fitness by thinking of the workplace as an opportunity to construct community. Meaningful interventions need not be complicated. Managers can simply start meetings with brief check-ins where participants share whatever state of mind they’re bringing into the office with them.
This simple grounding practice builds social support and camaraderie and only takes a few minutes. If you do it once a day, people feel more connected, more loyal and more satisfied with their work, boosting mental fitness and with it performance.
If you want to get more physically fit, you can go to the gym and work out by yourself. That’s a perfectly reasonable and healthy thing to do. But working with a personal trainer will get you to your goals faster. The same is true for mental fitness. Coaching is the fastest way to build mental strength and resilience.
Executives know this. That's why very few CEOs try to do their job without a coach. That would be like LeBron James trying to be LeBron James without a team of personal trainers and coaches. The U.S. army also knows this. Together positive psychologist Martin Seligman and Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum created the largest mental fitness intervention in the world; it trains every recruit at boot camp on preventative strength and human resilience.
Leaders should consider following suit and arming employees with similar strength-based interventions through coaching.
Simple interventions like these really can make a difference for a happier, healthier and more productive workforce. The choice isn’t between illness and basic functioning. With proactive effort to build mental fitness, we can thrive, during the pandemic and beyond.