HR Answers: Why Leaders Need to Model Good Mental Health Practices

calm young Black businesswoman meditating to reduce stress
Patricia Peyton Photo
Companies in Motion

6 minutes

And how building these physical habits will positively impact wellness and performance at your organization

A great leader I know once told me—and my own experience has borne out—that your people may not always do what you ask them to do, but they will almost always do what you do. A leader’s behavior sets the tone for the entire organization. According to an HBR article on culture, “When aligned with strategy and leadership, a strong culture drives positive organizational outcomes.” However, many leaders let it go unmanaged—a mistake, because properly managed, “culture can help them achieve change and build organizations that will thrive in even the most trying times.”

We were living in trying times even before the pandemic arrived. According to McKinsey, for the past several years, change has been occurring at 10 times the pace of the Industrial Revolution and 300 times the scale. Yet, most of us have not been trained to cope with the amount of change around us, leaving many people feeling overwhelmed, threatened or stressed. In 2019, the World Health Organization labelled burnout a syndrome defined as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” That same year, an estimated 1 million workers were absent every day due to stress, and research found that workplace culture was the biggest roadblock employees face in their efforts to feel healthier and happier.

Then 2020 arrived. We haven’t yet fully measured the impact of the events of 2020 (and beyond) on workplace performance, but we know that mental health issues continue to rise. The very people we are relying upon to lift us out of this economic and public health crisis are suffering in great numbers, and many companies are at a loss as to how to respond. Clients are telling us that their people are struggling with lack of motivation, decreased productivity and a drain on resilience, with even top performers becoming disengaged, and there has been a drop in in revenue generation.

As leaders, we’re responsible for responding to those challenges and doing so in a way that inspires our teams to follow us and supports them so that they are able to follow us, despite the uncertainty. Even though so much is beyond our control, especially now, we can still control ourselves—in fact, that is the only thing we can completely control.

Therefore, bearing in mind that our people are watching us, it is absolutely crucial for leaders and HR professionals to first model good mental health practices ourselves to help create an organizational culture that supports physical, mental and emotional well-being—because all three will be necessary to emerge successfully from the COVID-19 crisis.

Physical intelligence is an important part of creating that type of culture, because it enables us to control ourselves at a deeper level—at a chemical, even cellular level—and help our teams to do the same. Physical intelligence is the ability to detect and actively manage many of the hundreds of chemicals (hormones and neurotransmitters) that are racing through our bloodstream and nervous system at any given time, so that we can achieve more, stress less and live and work more happily. Those chemicals largely dictate how we think, feel, speak and behave. However, most of us operate at the mercy of those chemicals, experiencing thoughts, reactions and emotions without realizing that we can strategically influence them through a variety of techniques underpinned by neuroscience: ways of breathing, moving, thinking and interacting.

One of our clients, a large financial institution, decided six years ago to give their its new hire class physical intelligence training. These This group of young people are performing better, and staying with the company organization longer and, getting promoted faster. Today, tThe training was has been mandated up to Mmanaging dDirector level. As leaders, the way forward involves taking a different approach to providing support for our teams —by first—or at least simultaneously—providing support for ourselves and then cascading that those practices down through the organization.

Learning how to balance the key chemicals that impact our performance is critical. One chemical particularly important for mental health is oxytocin, our social bonding and trust chemical. It is produced in our brain and by independent neurons in and around our heart. According to neuroeconomist Paul Zak, who has tested oxytocin levels in the bloodstream of thousands of employees across many industries and cultures, in high oxytocin organizations there is 76% more engagement. People have 106% more energy, are 50% more productive, are 29% more satisfied with their lives, have 13% fewer sick days and have 40% fewer cases of burnout. To boost oxytocin throughout your organization, share information broadly, intentionally build relationships and, as leaders, ask for support. All of these actions build trust. We can also boost our own oxytocin levels with physical behaviors, such as massaging our heart and doing stretches that expand the chest, and by creating emotional connections—even with just a simple, genuine smile.

Trust begins with what people see. We subconsciously weigh whether or not we trust someone by assessing physical behaviors—stable eye contact, open body language, an authentic tone of voice and a responsive face. We read their emotional state through how they breathe and hold themselves. Open, expansive body posture increases confidence and risk tolerance. A Stanford University study found that the act of taking the lead in a critical situation tends to be by people who use open, expansive body posture, rather than by people who have been assigned a leadership role.

If you are stressed or fearful, then your team members will feel the same. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t feel stress or fear. It is far better for staff to hear honest concerns than to mistrust what we are saying. The key is to manage stress and not let it carry us away to a point where it deteriorates our cognitive function.

Paced breathing is the first thing to do whenever we feel stressed. Breath from the diaphragm, smoothly and rhythmically, counting in and out breaths in your mind. Discover the rhythm that works for you—e.g., four counts in and four out or five in and seven out. One hundred bankers in South Africa practiced paced breathing for 40 minutes a day (20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening) and had three coaching sessions with us. After 21 days, they experienced a 42% reduction in stress and a 62% increase in cognitive function on complex decision-making tasks.

Those are just a few examples of the power physical intelligence can have at an individual and organizational level. Our bodies and brains are inextricably linked. The brain will believe the body just as much as the body will believe the brain. With physical intelligence, it is within our power to manage our physical, mental and emotional health in ways that most people don’t even understand, let alone practice. The more physically intelligent we are, the more cognitively and emotionally intelligent we will be.

Patricia Peyton and Claire Dale are the directors of workplace performance and well-being consultancy Companies in Motion and authors of award-winning well-being book Physical Intelligence (Simon & Schuster), available now in e-book and hardback.

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