Are you okay? The importance of vulnerability in leadership

The past 12 months have been hectic and stressful, but the impending mental health crisis is yet more concerning

Are you okay? The importance of vulnerability in leadership

As we foray further into 2022, mental health and psychological wellbeing continue to dominate organizational strategy. The events of the past 12 months have only served to reinforce to the C-suite the necessity of an authentic mental health plan – something HR leaders have been touting the importance of for years. But, let’s face it, it’s better late than never.

“The pandemic has shined a spotlight on the importance of overall wellbeing, not just physical health but social, emotional and mental health as well,” Meghan Stettler, director of the O.C. Tanner Institute, tells HRD.

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“In the wake of uncertainty and social distancing, we saw many companies making a critical shift to meaningfully connect and support their people's mental health in new ways, including regular formal and informal check-ins, modelling healthy leadership behaviours, increasing mental health education, benefits and flexibility. The discussion on mental health has long been overdue, and it’s taken a pandemic to clearly see that being healthy is so much more than having a normal temperature – it's really an opportunity to champion employees’ overall wellbeing, which is inextricably linked across physical, social, emotional and mental health.”

Reactive strategies grow in authenticity

At the start of the pandemic, employers looked to implement quick, reactive mental health initiatives – ones that supported employees with their immediate COVID concerns. From there, these strategies grew and grew, until eventually a new, sleeker, more authentic wellbeing strategy was born. It’s no longer enough to offer a one-size-fits-all approach to psychological health; HR leaders should be looking at innovative, flexible plans that cater to individuals’ wants and needs.

“One thing for certain is that we continue to live in uncertain times,” says Raeleen Manjak, chief HR officer at the City of Vernon. “Prior to COVID-19 arriving and impacting mental health discussions in the workplace, many organizations had increased their focus on workplace mental health and wellness. I would offer that this is even more imperative today. As we continue to navigate the transitions from pandemic to endemic and beyond, leaders are likely to see employees struggle with a myriad of mental health challenges, such as anxiety, depression, burnout, trauma, and perhaps even PTSD.

"A study during the first year of the pandemic found that symptoms of depression were three times higher than before the pandemic. And now, well into the start of the third-year cycle, mental health and wellness experiences continue to require support as people face new and continuing stressors, safety concerns and upheaval.”

The shift in leadership approach has been essential to upending organizational hierarchy and removing the stigma of discussing mental health in the workplace. At the beginning, employers struggled with maintaining a culture of openness and transparency in remote working models – something that severely impacted collective mental health.

“While we’ve all needed to keep our distance from each other during the pandemic, the widespread disconnection has taken a toll,” says Stettler. “In fact, 45% of employees say that the number of people they regularly interact with at work has decreased significantly over the past year.

"We know from many studies that social connection is a fundamental human need that impacts our wellbeing and longevity – loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and lonely people are 50% more likely to die prematurely than those with healthy social connections. When employees feel less connected to their workplace, culture and purpose, the likelihood of great work falls 90%, the probability of burnout increases by 11 times, and the odds that employees will leave within three years surges by six times the average.

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"We’re seeing the effects of disconnection play out in real time with the Great Resignation and Revaluation, so a key area of cultural focus must be on identifying pathways for employees to foster authentic and quality connections that lead to fulfilling outcomes with the team, leaders and the organization. When those three connections are strong, employees are much more likely to stay at an organization.”

Why it’s OK not to be OK

Manjak agreed that the past 12 months have presented a unique set of challenges – made even more pressing by the collective decline in Canadian mental health. A recent survey by Statistics Canada found that one in five Canadians experienced depression or anxiety during the height of the pandemic, yet just 23% of employees felt comfortable approaching their HR leaders to voice their concerns. And, according to Stettler, employers need to do more when it comes to coaxing their people into talking about mental wellness – beginning with asking that all-important question, ‘Are you really OK?’

“Flexible and inclusive policies, educational awareness and benefits are an essential part of this equation, but I’d like focus on the power of leaders in being empathetic, modelling good health behaviours, and supporting connections by being vulnerable themselves,” says Stettler.

“Stigma is still a reason why many continue to ‘power through’ and suffer in silence. Having a listening and empathetic ear that’s poised to offer support in tangible ways to mitigate burnout continues to be critical entering year three of COVID. Additionally, having leaders state that they’re prioritizing their own health and setting boundaries by logging off or taking a day to rest allows others to feel confident to do that same. Lastly, being honest in conversations about your own discomfort and mental health during COVID can help erase that stigma and open doors for others to share their experiences without fear of shame or retribution.” 

Mental health in 2022 and beyond

Looking ahead to what the future holds for mental wellbeing in Canadian workplaces, there’s no clear picture. Leaders and employees alike are stuck in a battle between being seen to be productive and investing in that all-important self-care. In the coming months, it’ll be HR’s role to lead by example and practise what they preach.

“As quickly as the pandemic has required a shift, so has the emerging and evolving definition of mental health and wellness,” Manjak says.

“Part of this shift is to recognize, across the dimensions of health and wellness, what may be trending in 2022 and beyond. I would offer that there’s a variety of trends that support mental health and wellness, including intellectual wellness, financial wellbeing, mental health programming and education, virtual and telehealth care, improved emphasis on work-life integration. I think we’ll see more of a focus on managing social media use and learning and development opportunities in trauma-informed care. After all, the more we know as human resource practitioners, the better able we are to support our teams and our colleagues.”

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