For a really long time leaders have been expected to have it together and keep a lid on their emotions, despite increasing evidence that this is bad for both leaders and the people they lead.

Suppressing how you feel is tantamount to suppressing your humanness, it’s inauthentic and creates disconnection, making it harder for your team to trust you, to feel safe following you, and to express how they are feeling.

In a work climate that has endured so much more than the natural ebb and flow of uncertainty and change over the last five years, leaders need to be more emotionally agile than ever if they are going to navigate these choppy waters. People are still experiencing the psychological aftermath of Covid-19, the pressure of social change – however needed and welcome that is, and the economic constraints of the increased cost of living. Many have bounced from one uncertainty to the next, with little time to process what they’ve experienced and not enough space to find resolution.

A Honest Conversation

This paints a dark picture for workplaces in 2024, and while it varies from industry to industry, many people are exhausted, feeling this pressure or even experiencing burnout. This applies to you as leaders just as much as to those you are leading. We have an opportunity to fix this, but only if we are brave enough to drop the facade of ‘being OK’ and get really connected with how we, and those around us, are feeling.

This means you have to be honest with yourself, start honest conversations about mental wellbeing and how people are feeling, and then deal with what you find.

To do this well you might need to do some work on yourself first. None of us can lead well if we are exhausted, disengaged, or just about keeping it together, and all of us are human – we’ll have times when we feel like this. Taking steps to look after your own mental wellbeing is essential to effective leadership. It’s really easy to get caught up in hustle culture or the busyness trap, we place value on productivity, or output, sometimes at the expense of our wellbeing.

Leaders are often tempted or even expected, to push through, tough it out, and get the job done. It doesn’t matter if this pressure is self-imposed or external, its impact on your physical and mental health is the same. In the UK, a representative survey of over 3500 people found that just over half (51%) experienced at least one symptom of burnout. If you regularly try to convince yourself it’s ok, that you’ll rest or take a break at some mythical future time when you are less busy, remember burnout is brutal. It affects your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing, and probably that of those around you.

Rest and Repair

Burnout, stress, and prolonged anxiety change your brain physiology and the regulation of your body’s neuroendocrine systems, these keep your body balanced and functioning well by titrating hormone production in response to stimulus. Our survival depends on our ability to predict and respond so that we have the right hormones at the right time for rest, repair, and reproduction, as well as for fight and flight.

Without getting into a major physiology lesson, we are designed to be in ‘rest and repair’ mode most of the time, when we are under threat a hormone response is triggered releasing Cortisol (as well as adrenaline and noradrenaline) to ready our body to deal with the threat. Once the threat abates your cortisol levels fall.

When stress doesn’t ease, when cortisol levels remain high, we can experience a reduction in the executive function – or your logical processing. Elevated stress hormones literally make you less capable, making it harder for you to ‘think straight’ or problem-solve. Memory, judgement, and impulse control decrease – or go out the window in some cases. And if that wasn’t enough the areas of your brain responsible for anxiety and anger are amplified. None of this is a good leadership look.

Looking after your own mental wellbeing has to be a priority. It takes self-awareness, self-regulation, and planning. For many leaders this feels like a luxury or an indulgence even, but you can’t bounce through life, in a perpetually reactive state, perhaps with unkind self-talk, and expect to remain unscathed.

Mending the Disconnect

The challenge a lot of us have is we don’t actually pay much attention to what makes us feel good or bad, we’re too busy doing stuff. That ‘doing’ is sometimes a distraction from feeling, but feeling, or emotion, is how we process what we experience, it’s how we ready ourselves, physiologically, to what’s coming, and how we avoid too much uncertainty.

Our brains hate uncertainty. Whether you are conscious of it or not, your brain spends most of its time predicting and course adjusting to maintain some level of balance. Most of this is based on pattern recognition, drawing on your habits, and previous experiences. When we are overstimulated, by work, people, negative self-talk, or even too much coffee, our brains find it much harder to distinguish between threat and non-threat, keeping us in low-level fight/flight mode.

When you are aware of how you are feeling, and you understand what triggers stress, anxiety, and overwhelm, and what reduces it, you stand a much better chance of both learning to modify your reaction in the moment and training your brain to respond proportionally in the future. If you don’t know what makes you feel good or bad try this simple exercise: put a line down the middle of your page and write ‘what energises me’ on one side and ‘what drains me’ on the other, then spend a bit of time capturing the people, things, and situations that fall either side of that line.

Beyond Stigma

This is about preparedness or training yourself to be ready. The more uncertainty you can remove by understanding what you need to function well, and what your day, your next meeting, or even a difficult conversation might demand of you, the better you can plan. Then you are much less likely to be blindsided by your neurochemistry.

Mental wellbeing is still an uncomfortable subject for many people and there’s often a disconnect between organisational narrative around mental wellbeing, and people’s lived experiences. In part, this is because culture, and perceived stigma, is determined by the people and environment you spend most time in. How you make people feel, what you accept in behaviour and banter, what you model yourself, and the space you create (or deny) for processing experiences all make a difference to people’s openness around mental wellbeing.

If you deny yourself, or your team, the space to feel emotion you also reduce your capacity for resilience, tolerance, compassion, and a whole load of other helpful neurological responses.

Remember we operate on physiological responses driven by neurochemical reactions to our emotions and feelings. These absolutely influence how we experience the world – for better or worse. If you deny yourself, or your team, the space to feel emotion you also reduce your capacity for resilience, tolerance, and compassion, all of the things that keep us connected as human beings.

Good mental wellbeing doesn’t just happen, you have to make space and time for it. You also have to commit, exploring how you feel can be hard, or uncomfortable, and it’s much easier to be busy. This exploration, however, is what keeps you grounded, connected to who you are and why you do what you do, and critically, alerts you when something is not right.

Working Outwards

Being able to identify and declutter your mind of ambient emotions – like fear, frustration, and overwhelm helps you to stay out of stress mode, therefore increasing your mental bandwidth, creativity, and productivity. You are more likely to feel satisfied with your lot. Like most things in leadership, you need to start with yourself and work outwards, concentrating on the things you can most impact.

Remember that resilience is not about toughing it out or doing more with less. It’s about refuelling, maintenance, and emotional agility. The better you get at these the further you can go. It’s not selfish to prioritise your own needs most of the time, most impactful people do. When you are at your best you have more to give and are probably nicer to be around.

Choose what you focus on. We can be quite unintentional, pulled from pillar to post by what’s going on around us, our often critical self-talk, and a long to-do list. When consciously focus on things you can impact you feel more in control, this calms down your nervous system, and you are more likely to choose your response, rather than just react.

You always have some choice, even if it is only your attitude. You choose how you show up and what you bring by way of energy. You can’t control other’s reactions or behaviour, but you can choose your own and this is really powerful.

Prioritising Wellbeing

Finally, stay connected. The human need to be connected, or to belong, is incredibly powerful in terms of mental well-being. It gives us purpose and enables us to serve, contribute, and help others all make us feel safer. Humans are social creatures, and most of us don’t fare well in prolonged isolation. Make time for social interaction and connection with your fellow humans in and out of work.

As a leader, you may have to start conversations about mental wellbeing, listen deeply, when you pay attention people will tell you what matters to them and how to help them. Whether you are the boss or not, make sure expectations are explicit, behaviour and boundaries are clear.

If people don’t feel safe, or they feel judged they won’t talk about mental wellbeing, and stigma and suffering will prevail. Creating a culture of awareness, acceptance, and occasional accommodation of each other’s needs is the best way to help yourself and your people feel seen, valued, and included, these are the basis for good mental wellbeing at work.

This starts with you being in a good enough place to prioritise your own wellbeing, focus on what makes a difference and then support others.

Lynda is a prominent leadership voice, author and change activist in the healthcare sector. She established Health Service 360, an award-winning development consultancy, back in 2001 and spends her time helping leaders and health professionals to lead courageously, make tangible change, value themselves, and empower their people.

She believes it is each of us, not big organisations, religions, or governments, that change the world, - little action by little action, and as a Professor of Social Leadership at the University of Salford, Lynda helps to equip people with the skills and mindset needed to act and create social change.