Paying attention to your mental health as a leader

As a leader, I have a confession. Maybe like you, I also indulge in the occasional reality TV binge. When I’m feeling exhausted from the stress of a thousand workdays, I’ll buy a ridiculous amount of popcorn and gummy candy, sink into the couch, and indulge in the joys of lowest-common-denominator entertainment.

The achiever in me fights this relaxation with all it has, with low guilt, but I’ve learned the hard way over the years that it’s critical that I take the time to slow down. If I don’t, stress and fatigue can turn into something much more serious.

That happened to me earlier in my career, during three years of intensive management consulting during which I only slept four or five hours a night. My emotional regulation went out the window, I stopped paying attention to my mental health, and I became depressed. It was only through years of therapy and medication that I regained balance.

As leaders, we are familiar with a level of resources that many of our employees do not have, and are free of some of the risk factors that frontline workers in my industry, manufacturing, face. Our privilege is a responsibility – to make decisions that put our employees in the best position possible to manage their own mental well-being. At the same time, we ourselves are no less susceptible to the struggles that permeate every part of an organization.

Over the years, I’ve developed some guidelines that help me keep track of my mental health and make sure I’m charging properly so that I can be my best.

Learn to accept your limits

As I sink into the couch, it’s not uncommon for a series of questions to run through my head. What future opportunity am I missing out on by giving away this time? Who can use my help? What else could I do? Do I work less than other employees? What is the current status of my inbox?

As leaders, we have many people who rely on us, and during certain times it can be difficult to even take a night off. But in the end, just like your employees, you have both physical and mental limits. Learning to accept them can help you understand how important it is to fight through guilt to fully charge, even if it takes a few minutes to turn off the engines.

Take guilt and fear in context

Still struggling to decompress? Think about this: Emotions like guilt and fear are remnants of a time when just about everything threatened our security. About 80,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers who were not vigilant were prone to eating another species.

Once you’ve determined that you’re not giving yourself permission to truly rest, try to recognize that what you’re experiencing may in fact be your brain’s survival instincts reminding you to watch out. These emotions don’t help once you’ve analyzed your best course of action, so let them go and thank your brain for taking care of your “safety” at work.

And then take some rest, as it is one of the most effective ways to recharge and fight burnout.

Seek the support of your peers

To leaders, the old fable about boiling frogs rings true. We would certainly recognize the erosion of our sanity if it happened suddenly, like jumping from room temperature into an already boiling pot of water. But we’re all too willing to ignore warning signs as the water around us slowly goes from lukewarm to warm to hot — then boils over.

That’s where having a support network comes in handy. It’s often easier for those closest to us to spot the signs before it’s too late. You can and should allow those peers to approach you with empathy when they notice that you are beginning to waver. Of course, it’s still up to you to believe them and take the steps you need to get back on track.

Remember your actions trickle down

According to The State of Workplace Mental Health in the US in 2021 by Mind Share Partners and Qualtrics, the most desired resource for mental health is an open culture around the topic at work. Meanwhile, leaders who fail to promote mental health are the most common obstacle to self-care.

A way to tackle both? Tell your own story. “Leaders should serve as allies by sharing their own personal experiences to foster an environment of transparency and openness,” the authors of this study write in the Harvard Business Review. Not only will your vulnerability help rally troops when you’re struggling, but it can also create an environment that will actively improve your team’s well-being. Employees who feel supported by their employers with their mental health are half as likely to report symptoms lasting 5 to 12 months and are 5.5 times more likely to trust the company and its leaders, the report said.

Long story short, don’t rule out your anxiety, depression, or exhaustion. Even leaders are allowed to struggle, and only if we learn to cope with our fatigue can we be fully ready to take on the twists and turns that are sure to come in 2022.

Ethan Karp is the CEO and president of the nonprofit advisory group MAGNET, which stands for Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network.

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