Leaders are in a crucial position to be able to support employee mental health, however, according to the CIPD health and wellbeing survey at work (2022), only 38% of HR staff think managers in their organisation are confident enough to have conversations around mental health and signpost to support.
Workforce wellbeing and managing change
In an age where mental health support at work is vital and employees are struggling more than ever before, HR teams are needing to equip their leaders with new skills and resources to be able to offer better support.
Most HR professionals recognised long ago that dictatorial or authoritarian leadership doesn’t do teams any good, and that we need conscious, creative, and curious leaders. But now, in a fast changing world, it’s time to go one step further. To support staff in coping with change, we need leaders to genuinely care and understand their staff by being:
Skilled in empathy and compassion
Highly and consistently supportive
Aware of current issues impacting staff
Moving towards a culture that embodies this change agility and psychological safety requires leaders to learn new skills and approaches.
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Here are the key skills and leadership styles that are emerging as essential in today's world. Of course, it’s not a case of picking one over another, rather choosing which blend of styles might work best.
Leaders have the power to set the tone and expectation across an organisation. Throughout the pandemic, it was the leaders who demonstrated their own vulnerability, made time for colleagues, set their boundaries, and built safe spaces where employees felt they could do the same.
“People in leadership positions may certainly feel the pressure to be strong, especially in a time of immense uncertainty and change. As leader of a team at caba, I feel a pressure to ‘lead’ and be stoic when times are hard. But I’m learning that it’s not always healthy for me or my team, and it doesn’t set a great example. Having open conversations about how things have affected me and being vulnerable towards my team has allowed me to build better interpersonal connections. It models that it’s okay not to be okay, and it’s a safe space to seek support.”
Paul Day, senior support officer, Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association (caba)
Sometimes known as consultative leadership, participatory leadership is a bottom up approach where managers place emphasis on the employee voice, using the thoughts and opinions of team members to guide decisions. It allows for greater involvement and places more choice and accountability in the hands of staff.
Research has found this type of leadership significantly contributes to how psychologically safe an environment feels to employees. Participative leadership in frontline workplaces has also been linked to: improved employee thriving and helping behaviours and greater coping skills in times of stress.
The pandemic was a time where organisations were forced to truly acknowledge the humanity of their organisation, forcing many leaders to recalibrate their thinking.
“Human-centred leaders focus on teams as well as tasks. It’s about understanding what makes people thrive, and valuing each individual’s opinions, needs, and feelings. At the core of this is compassion and empathy, where leaders have to dig deeper to truly understand a person and how to support them emotionally.”
Dr Lynne Green, consultant clinical psychologist and chief clinical officer, Kooth
In a time of crisis and change, this compassionate and supportive leadership is a critical part of developing psychological safety. According to research by The Potential Project, compassion and wisdom in leaders yields 20% higher performance and 65% lower burnout in teams.
Transparent communication removes any guesswork. Leaders who are clear about role responsibilities, changes happening in the workplace, or even about not knowing the answer have shown to increase employee happiness and overall performance.
Clarity around mental health is also crucial, and despite an overall increased investment in mental health initiatives, many leaders are missing out on this. According to Gallup, 74% of employees feel they miss out on vital company information and news. If employees aren’t sure what is available to them, or know where to go for help, it may leave them feeling disconnected, confused, and unsupported.
Safety specific transformational leadership
Transformational leadership - whereby leaders inspire and motivate employees to embody change - is well established as helping develop a positive culture where employees feel supported and confident in times of change.
There are some transformational leaders who are “safety specific”, focusing on inspiring employees to be as safe as possible, through encouraging their internal motivation, and promoting safety as a core value. This kind of leadership is linked with improved safety compliance and overall physical safety in the workplace.
However, more recently, safety specific transformational leadership has been linked to enhanced psychological wellbeing amongst workforces. Leaders who show consideration for the health of employees as individuals, frequently ask for input on how to improve safety, and go extra miles to ensure the physical and mental health of employees can:
Reduce the overall risk felt in the workplace
Promote autonomy amongst employees
Strengthen interpersonal relationships and trust amongst teams
All are essential components of psychological and employee wellbeing.
To read more about leadership in a changing world, download the guide to ‘Next level leadership for managing change’. Here you'll find expert insights around the urgent need to nurture and equip leaders to support a wounded workforce.