mental health awareness

Mental Health Awareness—three important manager lessons that I couldn’t have done without

May 21, 2020 | in Snyk Team
| By Ella Gee

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK and this year’s theme is kindness—a topic that really resonated with me as a manager.  Many people find it easy to be kind to others, but much harder to be kind to themselves, and over the years I have found that one of the most impactful messages that I could share with my team to help ensure their success has revolved around this.  

Why? Well, like physical health, the topic of mental health is hugely important—both for every individual who wants to be successful, happy and healthy but also, in my opinion, a critical focus point for all managers and team leads who want to build high performance, productive and long-standing businesses.  Three key lessons have emerged for me over the years which highlight possible mental health impacts on my teams and have reinforced the importance of recognizing these early. 

First of all, some background: over recent years, the topic of mental health has really taken center stage for a lot of startups and fast-scaling companies, where the pressure to succeed and become a profitable business is often high. The startup world moves quickly—companies experience incredibly fast growth, at break-neck speeds, and each stage of growth comes with new problems to solve. A new set of challenges needing all hands on deck, new products to build, new customers to bring on board, new markets to enter, are only a few of those challenges—it’s exciting and fulfilling, and I for one am hooked. However, the majority of people who join these startups do so because they want to help create something from nothing and scale a company very quickly. Because of this, the temptation to drop the odd weekend or lunch break to focus on making progress faster is strong, to the detriment of everyone’s mental health.  

Combine that with our hectic world and fast-paced lives, where commutes, caring responsibilities, and that ever-increasing pile of life admin sit waiting, it’s safe to say that our teams face a challenge when prioritizing their time to rest and recharge.

So, what’s the impact of this, and what can you, as a manager, do to help?  Why is it essential that we prioritize good mental health hygiene practices in our teams, and recognize signs of burnout early?  Below are 3 of the top tips and lessons that have resonated with me the most.

1. There are many reasons for procrastination, and sometimes it is actually a symptom of struggling mental health.

I read an excellent article recently called “Why you procrastinate (It has nothing to do with self-control)”. Sometimes, procrastination in members of your team can indicate a lack of interest or engagement, both of which need your attention as a manager in one way or another.  

However, sometimes it goes deeper than that, and procrastination is instead linked to difficult emotions or even a case of imposter syndrome preventing that person from challenging themselves or setting goals because they’re terrified of not succeeding, or perhaps sure that they can’t. This article brought me to this realization which was actually a breakthrough for me and changed the way I approached the topic of procrastination with my team forever—I definitely recommend a read!  In startups, we often talk about creating a safe space for failure—but how many people really do this for themselves, especially when they’re already suffering from imposter syndrome or low confidence? My advice: encourage your team to be kind to themselves when learning new things, and how to not only forgive, but to celebrate and learn from their failures.  

2. Work-life balance is not just important, it is crucial.

For many people (and I’ve seen this often in startups), the desire to achieve more and do more work often leads to us investing more hours which, when done on a long-term basis, can result in high stress, mental exhaustion, followed by a feeling that we’re failing, waves of guilt each time we take a lunch break, and trouble sleeping. (Well, that was how I felt, anyway).

What is the result? Well, in my experience: trouble focussing and a need to keep context-switching to stay engaged, less attention to detail, difficulty with complex problem solving, and less creativity. In simple words, it’s bad for our mental health, and it stunts our professional growth too. And the closer you get to burnout, the harder it is to see the wood for the trees, and that’s where you as a manager come in! It is so important to stay alert to signs of burnout and catch them early in others, but even more fundamental to help your team learn how and why they need to do that for themselves. This leads me on to point 3.

3. Being kind to yourself is so much harder than being kind to others 

In my experience as a manager, it is so important both for the individual and for the company that you encourage your team to be brave enough to take their time off, to fully disconnect, to turn off their notifications and emails, and to check out for the sake of recharge.  

For me, being brave enough to take the work-life balance that I needed was actually one of the hardest learning journeys I ever went on, fraught with guilt and self-reproach, but without this lesson, I don’t think I could have made it to where I am today. I’m so very grateful for the inspirational and successful people who encouraged me to give myself permission to take the time off that I was due, and helped me notice the impact of it in my performance and my happiness. And beyond that, I am extremely thankful for the patience they demonstrated as I learned how to be kind to myself.

To all lovely managers out there: as many inspirational people in my life have often told me, the most successful business people have learned life is a marathon, it is not a race, and we are only human—that’s an important lesson for us to pass on to our teams.  Your mental health is just as vulnerable as your physical health and we must learn to look after it, if we are going to continue growing and succeeding, both for ourselves and for the businesses we work for.