Why inclusive leaders care about mental health and stress at work.

Why inclusive leaders care about mental health and stress at work.

Inclusive leadership is recognized as a robust approach to successfully managing teams, and increasingly senior leaders are asking for practical ways to build this into their leadership training. But let’s strip away the jargon, what exactly do we mean by being an inclusive leader? An inclusive leader is responsible for managing a team and with a specific emphasis on creating a culture where team members feel they can be themselves and not adapt to a particular type of persona. While the principle around this term is so simple and quite basic, achieving this behavior is challenging.

Leading teams requires a carefully blended set of skills, which at times, can seem to be at odds with each other. CEOs consistently cite ‘people issues’ as one of the top three areas that keeps them awake at night. Handling people is not an issue reserved for CEOs and the executive suite, it is an area that inevitably creates significant challenges for leaders and managers across the organization.

As teams become more diverse, leaders face the need to expand their bandwidth to become more inclusive in creating a culture where diversity is recognized and valued. So far this sounds fine, mainly when companies focus on the well-trodden areas of gender, ethnic and racial diversity. What happens when we examine how creating an inclusive culture also means building in the capabilities to handle mental health issues? We recognize the need to live with ongoing uncertainty, and this is not confined to our working lives. While we feel a certain sense of infallibility in riding the waves of change, the effort it takes us to function even with the most basic level creates stress and exhaustion of endemic proportions.

Mental health problems are a pandemic that most leaders feel ill-equipped to address and if we are honest, are more likely to ignore in the hope it will disappear. Increasingly, leaders are implicitly expected to have the skills to handle mental health issues amongst their team members. However, based on current trends they fall into the group that has a higher propensity to suffer from mental health problems. Michael Kaufman, senior fellow of the Instituto Promundo and author of the forthcoming, ‘The Time Has Come, Why Men Must Join the Gender Equality Revolution’emphasizes the impact of upbringing and social norms, “the way we have raised boys to be more strong, and so feelings are equated with weakness and vulnerability.” The impact of this has been that over generations, leadership has been built upon strong masculine characteristics, where demonstrating emotions or vulnerability is viewed as a weakness and a threat to effective leadership. Kaufman goes on to describe the over-riding attitude towards leadership; “At some level, there is a feeling, if you can’t take it, then you shouldn’t be here. Emotions are taught and socialized in a specific way throughout boyhood and in key experiences, for example on the sports field.”

Inclusive leadership provides the lever for individuals to challenge the long-held assumptions around leadership, strength, not showing vulnerability and indeed not discussing mental health challenges. Mental health remains one of the areas in the broader inclusive agenda that has been difficult to address. As with any aspect of behavior change, serious momentum is achieved when senior leaders share their personal experiences. Over the last few years, Antonio Horta-Osorio, CEO of Lloyds Bank discussed his mental health battles, and this has now become a platform he regularly discusses. Lloyds Bank has adopted this mantel to change the culture, no mean feat in a financial institution that is 253 years old.


Mental health does not discriminate based on gender, race or any other protected trait, but it is an area that is still the least understood and the most uncomfortable for leaders to address. A proclivity to ignore the sensitivities of this area means leaders are under-prepared. When mental health problems are exposed, there is invariably a sense of urgency and panic-reaction as the symptoms are quite extreme. This means managers need to be constantly alert. They also need to build transparent relationships where colleagues are comfortable in sharing their experiences before the situation becomes overwhelming. Sonal Thakrar, a psychotherapist with extensive experience of handling communications for senior leaders, argues that communication is a powerful tool in this arena. She says; “Successful leaders know how to foster an environment of open communication where people feel able to be themselves and not hold back”. For individuals to feel comfortable sharing their concerns, the key is building trust. People are often worried about how the information may be used during appraisals, promotions or other decisions around career opportunities and this will only change when organizations put more emphasis on mental health.

Rather than waiting for team members to falter, leaders can do a lot to prepare the groundwork. Enabling change requires a recognition that when mental health hits one of the team, and it is a when not an if, the impact will be felt by everyone. Leaders set the standard regarding attitudes and behaviors around how mental health issues are addressed. The most effective means of addressing mental health requires leaders to get ahead of the problem by demonstrating their own vulnerability, sharing experiences and conversations. Timing is also crucial – this needs to happen on an ongoing basis and when things are going well, not as a knee-jerk to a negative experience. As Thakrar says, “building mental strength and the resilience to be able to cope when things go wrong needs to happen when you are in a good place, in control and not running on empty. These coping strategies will then kick in when things get difficultWhy inclusive leaders care about mental health and stress at work.

Important steps for building inclusive leadership skills

Developing inclusive leadership skills is aligned with creating a safe culture, treating every team member as an individual and also the need for a safety net when situations become overwhelming. Kaufman suggests three steps to create an approach to work are a combination of creating the right environment.

  1. Building reflective thinking is the most important role in becoming an inclusive leader, this provides a powerful route in making sense of experiences in how you handle team members. Effective reflection requires a serious amount of honesty rather than falling into the trap of self-serving justifications for short-cuts in your leadership approach.
  2. Active listening is a powerful partner to reflective thinking, although not always particularly natural but essential. The more senior you are, the more likely you are to be listened to, but as a leader one of the most powerful skills is not what you hear but what is not being said during conversations.
  3. Your profile as a role model demonstrating your commitment to mental-health well-being. Consider how you can leverage your position to encourage greater adoption of mental health awareness, through well-being or training programmes. The crux to success is the recognition that everyone across the organization needs to be part of this mandate to create a more inclusive culture.Inclusive leadership is necessary to get the best out of teams. Through engendering trust and openness, individuals perform better through better quality thinking and more powerful levels of resilience in navigating their way through more turbulent periods. Maintenance and preparation are far more effective than reacting and fixing. If you still need convincing think about the impact of a car accident without wearing a safety belt. Inclusive leaders need to ensure everyone is supported when they know things are going to get bumpy.

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