Empathy in leadership is one of the key attributes for a successful tech leader and the COVID crisis has brought the need for compassionate management to the fore as we grapple with the unique challenges of working through a pandemic.
As Movember draws to a close for another year we look at the issue of Men’s Mental Health, how to spot when someone is suffering and how to manage both yourself and your team through an individual’s personal crisis.
It’s become something of an annual tradition. As the December advent calendars start going up, those November moustaches start coming down.
But to those unfamiliar with this hirsute phenomenon, a brief history ….
“Movember” is held every year in November as men around the world grow conspicuous moustaches in recognition of a movement created to help raise awareness of men’s health issues.
It emerged in Australia 20 years ago, initially as a localised and fun way to raise money and awareness of issues such as prostate cancer, testicular cancer and men’s suicide.
Since then it has become a global movement with the moustache as its driving symbol and the Movember Foundation that has since emerged has raised nearly $1 billion, funding over 1,200 projects around the world.
“Movember” has since been listed as one of the world’s top 100 NGOs.
So the Movember moustache has come a long way in a short time, because it needed too.
Before then men’s mental health in particular was a topic that lived in the shadows.
“Men and women both experience depression but their symptoms can be very different. Because men who are depressed may appear to be angry or aggressive instead of sad, their families, friends, and even their doctors may not always recognize the anger or aggression as depression symptoms In addition, men are less likely than women to recognize, talk about, and seek treatment for depression. Yet depression affects a large number of men” – National Institute of Mental Health, UK
This movement is part of a recent shift in society that is enabling a more open conversation about issues that men are not instinctively comfortable talking about.
Society and peer pressure has shaped many of us not to show signs of weakness and not to recognise or seek help when we need it.
Even those who have diagnosed mental health issues often remain uncomfortable discussing it with anyone else. A trip to the pharmacy can bring anxiety, let alone talking openly with someone even if they’re a professional.
This leads to an inevitable build up of pressure for the individual whilst those around him are often unaware that something is wrong and getting worse, because men don’t always show signs you might associate with mental health issues such as depression, sadness and hopelessness.
Instead it can emerge in the form of anger and aggression or unhealthy coping mechanisms that those close to the individual might not see or be aware of.
One of the primary messages we need to get across in these situations is that Depression can’t be sweated out by force of will.
My father came from a war generation here in the UK where illness was ignored. I suffered from chronic hay fever as a boy which was treated dismissively by my father as something that fresh air would drive out of me. Oh how I loved those summer walks in those lush Cornish hay meadows! He certainly had a limited facility or empathy for anyone suffering from mental health challenges. Alas, that approach is still prevalent today amongst men in particular.
But depression is not a sign of weakness and it can affect anyone regardless of age, race or ethnicity.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, it’s often a combination of factors.
Family history can play a part whilst the fluctuations of daily life, such as financial stress, work pressure, difficult relationships and illness are examples of different triggers.
What is clear and consistent is that individuals need help to emerge from such episodes and it’s crucial that society in general, as well as those closest to the individual involved, provide clear signals that it’s OK to ask for help and they provide signposts for where to seek it. We need to minmise the risk of that individual trying to cope with it all themselves and the tragic consequences that can follow, particularly with men who in the US die by suicide at rates almost 4x higher than women.
That said, whilst Movember is about advocating awareness of men’s mental health it’s clearly an issue that affects both genders.
As a manager and as a human being you need to understand how depression can manifest itself and how to create a safe space and environment for individuals to raise the issue with confidence that it will be handled openly and proactively.
Look for changes in behaviour and potential symptoms of poor mental health;
Add to this mix a pandemic and the need for sensitive management and awareness has only increased. One survey conducted at the start of this crisis (March – April 2020) found that the mental health of almost 42% of respondents had declined since the outbreak began so given the time that has passed since then, we can only imagine the impact this is having on short term mental health and the risk of longer term issues.
In truth, workplace mental health was becoming a more public issue before the pandemic and many companies had improved their support mechanisms dramatically though often as a result of pressures from employees, rather than a pro-active, senior management led focus.
But there are an increasing number of organisations and consultancies like Sanctus here in London, who focus on helping organisations and individuals manage these situations and who can help you understand how to put mental health care of those around you as a priority of the working environment you’re creating.
Sometimes the key of how to lead is as much about you and how you as a leader react and communicate around these issues.
You should be comfortable showing your own vulnerabilities and truths. Be willing to open up about challenges you have faced or are facing. Normalising mental health challenges and acknowledging that we all struggle at times, can be a hugely liberating signal that removes the stigma for others to do the same.
We talk a lot at CTO Academy about culture and how it’s shaped from the start and from the top of a company therefore, the conversation might need to start with you and the resources your company makes available and how you encourage people to access them.
Biotech firm Roche Genentech were involved in a very proactive internal campaign with videos from senior leaders talking about mental health in a campaign called #Let’sTalk. They empowered a network of employees, training them to help build awareness and become “mental health champions”. They also support their employees’ physical and mental health by encouraging use of digital health tools such as Headspace (meditation and mindfulness app) where after an initial trial they conducted reviews that confirmed people who used the app felt more content and happier at home and work. They have since given all 14,000 employees free access to the app.
They introduced other services such as Doctor on Demand, recording a significant reduction in days lost to illness due to more people accessing care through this telemedicine solution, and Sleepio a sleep improvement app that uses cognitive behavioral therapy to alleviate insomnia.
Too little or poor sleep has enormous health impacts with 10x greater risk of depression, 60% higher risk of obesity and 11 lost days of productivity.
What the recent #WFH environment has created is more honesty and openness about how our personal lives intersect with our business ones.
Whereas beforehand a video of children interrupting a live TV interview was such a novelty that it went viral and attracted 41 million views, now it’s just part of a standard Zoom conference call.
This dramatic shift in working behaviours has given us no choice but to be more transparent about our lives and lifestyle away from work. Whilst Zoom has its social limitations it might have started moving us towards a more honest relationship with each other, though the human condition is such that we’re as likely to snap straight back into pre-COVID work/life barriers.
As the world returns to some kind of operational normality in 2021 you should avoid paying lip service to mental health support but instead start to embody an attitude that encourages healthy behaviour across the company. Give your team and your colleagues licence to be open about self-care and mental health and not treat work as a boiler room environment of deadlines and targets.
Create an environment where people can talk about these issues, switch off, take a walk, access a meditation app, book a therapy session.
Build a buddy system and regular check-ins but again, don’t set it up and ignore it. Book regular check-ins with colleagues and listen though alas, the art of listening is a woefully under developed skill amongst many tech leaders.
An HBR article on How Managers Can Support Employees Mental Health quotes a study conducted between Harvard, Qualtrics and SAP where “nearly 40% of global employees said that no one at their company had asked them if they were doing OK”
They go on to report that a 2019 Mental Health at Work Report found the most commonly desired workplace mental health resources were a more open and accepting culture, clearer information about where to go or whom to ask for support, and training.
Now is the time, as we recalibrate towards a post COVID future, for you to focus on how and where you can improve your own leadership skills in this area and more widely, how your organisation creates an environment that supports people through these important issues.
Key takeaways to consider;
– How you can lead by example
– Create an environment where people can be open and talk about it publically
– Providing access to external support and apps
– Invest in training and awareness
– Modify policies and practices
– Measure impact and progress
We place such importance around the issue of mental health for tech leaders that we include Mindset & Wellness within our management skills courses.
We have also written about it in previous blogs including Managing with Compassion.
COVID has likely concertinaed 5-10 years of change into 6-9 months of this pandemic. It’s also made many of us reflect on where we are, who we are and how we live our lives.
If managing your mental health and that of your team wasn’t a priority before it must be now, and as a leader and manager you need to double down on what’s required to maintain a mentally healthy workplace culture for yourself and your team, and well in advance of being reminded about it all over again next Movember.
Co-Founder, CTO Academy
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