World Mental Health Day - are change leaders paying enough attention to their mental health?

Today, 10 October, is World Mental Health Day and the articles I’ve been reading have given me pause to consider whether as leaders and implementers of change we are paying enough attention to our own mental health.

In recent years there has been a great deal of awareness raised about mental health and the taboo surrounding it is slowly lessening. There is however, a long way to go until people perceive mental health and physical health in equal terms. Initiatives like World Mental Health Day help to get us talking about this important topic.

I’ve worked on major change programmes for a number of years and it strikes me that those of us who are responsible for the implementation of change within organisations are often working in environments that can damage our mental wellbeing and equilibrium.

We are often working to aggressive deadlines set by the business on highly visible projects that are closely aligned with the organisation's strategy; we are often the ‘face’ of change on to which resistance, fear and anger can be projected; we are working outside of the organisational hierarchy with limited formal authority and often without a peer group team; we are more often than not working within ambiguity and uncertainty.

These factors individually can trigger a strong stress response but combined need to be carefully managed. Add to this the fact that there is a strongly held view (and I hold it myself) that a good PM will remain calm and in control no matter what is thrown at them. This can close off the possibility of opening up and discussing how this challenging environment may be affecting us.

I’d love to open up a conversation about the impact of this work on those who hold responsibility for delivering change. What is the personal cost? What support is out there? And how can we support one another?

I have my own coping mechanisms which I want to share with you:

  1. Having a coach – through the major change programmes I have managed I have always had regular access to an executive coach. It has been an essential element of success for me. Having a protected space to unpick, reflect and build strategies was often a lifeline during particularly challenging periods. Without exception I came away from these sessions re-energised and better able to cope.

  2. Regular breaks – it is easy to fall in to the trap of thinking nothing will function if you aren’t there. If this is the case, something has gone very wrong! I know that I can only be my best if I have regular holidays booked in. For me it has to be once per quarter. There are certainly some moments in projects where you just have to be there but it can’t be for the full duration!

  3. My support network – this is central to my mental wellbeing. I am a social person (very much a Myer Briggs E) so being around people is really important for me. I invest time in building and nurturing my support network. I also find that I am energised by supporting others so will always make time for mentoring, even during the busiest phases of a project.

  4. Exercise – I have finally landed on my perfect exercise mix: spinning, yoga and Pilates. Spinning is perfect because all I can think about is breathing so it is a form of meditation! Yoga is consciously focussing inwards and I love the meditation (falling asleep) phase. And the focus on core strength in Pilates helps me to stand tall through challenging times.

  5. Quiet – as well as being a very social person I need my own space to return to a place of calm. It may be just 10 minutes sitting quietly on a bench away from the office or an hour reading a book but when I feel overwhelmed taking time out to be alone and quiet is essential for me.

Sharing our coping mechanisms and, more importantly, creating space for these in our working lives, helps to visibly model self-care which can start to remove barriers around talking openly about our mental health.

How do you cope when the overwhelm hits? Do you agree that this is something that can be particularly acute for those managing change? And do you think we are doing enough about it?

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