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How can HR Business Partners support mental well-being of leaders and prevent burnout?

What about mental well-being?

The pandemic period, remote and hybrid work models, and the constant use of technology for communication mean new challenges for organizations and leaders. Leaders are required to quickly implement changes, make decisions, communicate them to their employees, as well as support those employees. For over a year and a half now, we have experienced many more of those changes and difficulties. A team can receive support only from someone who feels internally strong and coherent, someone that can control their emotions and keep calm. Someone who has the energy – and that is exactly where the problem lies. Research in organizations shows that most leaders are overloaded and tired.

Mental well-being of a leader – I am human too

Leaders say ‘We are told all the time that we have to look after our employees, but what about me? I am a human being too, so I am affected by stress and fatigue as well. Because reconciling business objectives with support for your employees is a huge challenge. A high level of fatigue makes us get upset more often and faster. It is more difficult for us to control our reactions in stressful situations. According to the 2021 “Stresoodporni” (“Stress-resistant”) Human Power report, more than half of leaders describe their level of fatigue as high or very high. This is also confirmed by internal research in the organizations I work with. Overload, the amount and pace of tasks – these are the main burdensome factors.

It is also a path towards burnout. The risk of burnout is greater in an environment where you constantly have to deal with one crisis after another, while your body is on high alert at all times. This also applies to situations with perceived lack of personal control over one’s experience, when both the demands and uncertainty are high.

What is needed to take care of the mental well-being of a leader?

Support, being treated like other employees, the feeling of being understood and listened to. “We leaders are humans too” (we can also have a bad day, family problems, etc.).

Time and attention of their supervisor – because they are told that nowadays an employee needs one-on-one conversations and making sure whether everything is okay, while leaders themselves do not get that from their superiors.

A safety valve, an outlet for pent-up tension, because they are often caught between a rock and a hard place – the expectations and needs of employees and the expectations of their own superiors.

Space to talk and share their thoughts. They need to feel that they are not alone. Space for recharging their batteries – because when are they supposed to recover if their boss keeps challenging them?

Sense of efficiency – feedback from their supervisor, which they often do not receive because ‘everything is fine’, even though they feel that’s not true.

Sense of agency – this also involves working on the ability to let go sometimes, to not bang your head against a wall for the umpteenth time.

And of course knowledge – how to support their employees, how to deal with their emotions, promote commitment and good relationships.

The need for resilient leadership

Organizations and their employees need resilient leadership. Resilience is an ability to quickly recover from a change, complication, or difficulty. We can compare it to a roly-poly toy that rights itself when pushed. It rises like a phoenix from the ashes.

Hence, resilient leadership involves the ability to deal with unexpected and undesirable changes and to adapt quickly to such changes. The ability to overcome difficulties without resorting to dysfunctional behavior and without burdening others. A psychologically resilient leader is aware of their own emotions. They know how not to transfer them onto their team. They anticipate their own reactions before those reactions could affect their employees. Last but not least, it is the ability to maintain a high level of energy under pressure and in conditions of fatigue. Mental well-being of leaders is the cornerstone of resilient leadership.

How to support the psychological well-being of leaders? Ways to support leadership well-being and mental toughness

  • It is important to develop self-awareness about your own emotions and sources of stress. To find out what the stimulus is and what your reaction looks like.
  • Developing responsiveness – the ability to pause for a moment after noticing a stimulus and to reprogram your reaction. We infect others with our emotions and our stress, and people need an emotionally stable leader, because it gives them a sense of security. The pause may have a mental dimension – I catch myself experiencing an emotion caused by the stimulus and ask myself questions: ‘What is happening? How do I want to react and do I have to react at all? What is my influence here?’ Such mental work can release enormous amounts of energy, as one of my clients said, “I regained 70% of my headspace that I had been cluttering with worries and anxieties, etc.”.
  • Exercising mindfulness – greater awareness of breathing and contact with your body. The exercise, which is appreciated by leaders who notice a dramatic decrease in levels of tension and enhanced responsiveness, is called box breathing, or square breathing. It is a reminder of the basics: to take care of your body, sleep, foster relationships that are a source of positive emotions and energy.

Job burnout. Check!

This is the time to check if perhaps I’m on my way to burnout and to turn back, which also means introducing more of invigorating activities (after Susie Smith). Since what we usually do when we have a lot of work is to give up the activities that nourish us, while continuing with those that exhaust us, leaving us with nowhere to get our energy from.

Such a program to improve the mental well-being of a manager should be a full-cycle program, not a one-time training, and certainly a program which allows the leader to choose matching activities. I suggest that the program of enhancing the manager’s well-being in the organization should be introduced by examining managerial challenges so that the program addresses the needs.

If we decide to participate in workshops, they should be modular (3-4 hours) and in small groups, with space for discussion and exchange of knowledge and experiences. Mental Toughness Questionnaire (MTQ) and individual consultations – these are the tools that leaders value greatly as well. They have specific guidelines that they work on. Another form is a leadership forum, focused on the exchange of knowledge, leadership experiences, and development of common solutions – all facilitated by a moderator. Leaders need to feel that they can relax a little, get some air, see other peoples’ experiences. See that they are not alone, see ideas for solving specific problems in their organization, in the reality they live in. They need to see by themselves that mental well-being of a leader is important to the entire organization.

Tools for working with employees and supporting mental toughness in a team

  • How to address employees’ emotions? How to tell – in a remote work environment – if an employee is okay, whether they need support, or if they are going through some kind of psychophysical crisis? Early detection of signals and symptoms leading to a lower level of commitment and moods. How to hold such a diagnostic-support conversation with them?
  • Defining: what can a manager do on their own as a supervisor and when do they need a psychological intervention and help? Identifying possibilities, setting boundaries. What is the right level of engagement with this issue in general, because some leaders say “let’s halt this pandemic spiral” and others see that this is what people need to talk about.
  • How to support relationships? What is happening now is people are socially distant, there is less comradeship, managers see a stronger need to mediate between people, topics are being dropped, as one of the leaders put it: previously people in the team would make sure themselves that one puzzle piece fit another, now they do not communicate to each other that these puzzles do not go together.

These are some of the questions leaders need to answer. And this is where it is very helpful to discuss problems within the management team as part of a facilitated meeting / training session. For example, leaders appreciate such a structure of a diagnostic-support conversation in 4 steps. They will obviously introduce their own methods, customize them, but they will also have something to base them on.

HR can support the psychological well-being of leaders and managers in many ways, and since mental toughness significantly affects performance – it is in the interest of all parties involved. If you need support in this area, contact me.

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