Leadership and Mental Health: Promoting a mindful work environment

Over a decade ago, when I began managing software engineers, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, nor did I have any prior experience leading people. My whole life I had been told what to do (at school, at home and at work), so that seemed like the obvious leadership style for me to adopt. I thought that if I just told people what to do and how to behave, they would simply follow my instructions and that everything would be fine! Right?! Wrong. So very wrong. Why? Because people aren’t robots.

Thankfully, I’ve learned a lot over the years. In my current role as Senior Software Engineering Manager at N26, I work closely with many different people. And as I often tell my teammates, we may work in technology, ‘talk in code’, have bits and bytes running through our veins, and we might even be okay with being called nerds, but, at the end of the day, we’re people. We’re just like everyone else. As with normal people, we have emotions, we get excited and frustrated, we become happy and sad, we laugh and cry, we love and hate, and so on. From my perspective, this is the foundation of being human.

The three main relationship dimensions

We all experience a wide range of emotions, expectations and frustrations, and understanding each person’s character traits is vital for any leader. Over time, I realised that people have three main relationship areas, which I often refer to as dimensions, that are the pillars of each individual’s reality:

  • Personal: everything related to our relationship with ourselves, such as our feelings, emotions, thoughts, goals, and secrets.
  • Loved ones: how we establish and maintain relationships with our family, our closest friends, how we fall in and out of love, our place in our respective communities, etc. 
  • Professional: how we build and manage relationships at work, how we perform, our expectations and goals, and how we manage our frustration when we don’t achieve our goals, or receive the rewards we expect.

All of the above are intrinsically connected and anything that happens in one of these dimensions will surely impact the other two. When we find ourselves and/or our people in distress, it basically means that something isn’t working – for whatever reason. It could be something personal, with loved ones, or the pressure of work, and this could lead to mental health problems like depression. When people feel distressed, they need a compassionate, human response. Awareness of this is a great starting point for any leader.

How can leaders be a positive influence?

Obviously, as a leader, you can influence others mainly in the professional dimension by, for example, creating a culture where work-life balance allows your people to dedicate more time to their loved ones, or their personal hobbies. Promoting mental health by developing the more positive aspects of work strengthens people.

Surprisingly or not, where a leader can have the most stunning impact is in the personal dimension. By promoting a culture of self-belief, learning, awareness and accountability, your people will feel that you care for their wellness, opinions, feelings, potential and growth. It is vital for  leaders to be able to detect mental health issues early, whenever possible, because the earlier you are able to recognise them, the earlier you can provide support to your people. These are the foundations of creating and maintaining a meaningful professional relationship, where your people will begin to trust and rely on their leader.

A vision for long-term impact

That being said, how does this leadership style, where your people come first and foremost, fit into today’s super competitive business world? How can a leader shift the focus onto high performance and meeting goals, even when many companies are looking for short-term profit over long-term vision and impact?

It really depends on which is your main goal. If your focus is on attaining personal excellence, having a meaningful impact on the lives of others, and ensuring your people have a healthy environment in which they can work, then you should really focus on developing a non-toxic culture. 

What to do when someone on your team is struggling

As a leader, I’ve often found myself thinking and trying to find out about why a certain individual wasn’t performing well or, at least, not according to expectations, only to find that they were dealing with personal problems at the time.

What not to do—ignore the problem

One approach could be to ignore those problems and ‘demand’ that the individual focus on their work and deliver as expected.. But that approach would always end in either the individual failing to deliver to expectations, or the individual delivering work of a low quality, which would likely lead to some re-working down the line. Either way, the individual would be even more distressed, adding to their existing problems. Iterating on this approach will lead to the lowest possible levels of performance, focus and satisfaction, and will eventually lead to the individual leaving the company. It can also exacerbate their mental health issues.

The benefits of a positive, supportive approach

On the other hand, a leader can choose to simply help the individual resolve or mitigate their personal problems, to whichever extent possible from a professional standpoint. In this case, either the individual is able to resolve their issues or, at least, lessen their impact.. This may delay the delivery of their work but, more importantly, will have two major outcomes: the quality of  deliverables will improve, leading to increased satisfaction thus meeting company goals(!), and  the individual feels supported and cared for, in addition to having one less problem to deal with in their personal life. Focusing on this approach will result in increased performance, levels of focus and satisfaction, as well as a higher sense of purpose. It will also lead to building meaningful relationships across the board, therefore, increasing retention of talent. Overall, it creates a healthy work environment for your people.

Take care of your people

It is highly important to promote a healthy workplace as it is to understanding the opportunities and needs of individual employees. Good mental health at work and good leadership go hand in hand, thus the importance of having meaningful relationships at work is crucial for your mental health and general wellbeing.

As the universal saying goes: take care of your people, and they will take care of you!