Mental Health Awareness Week: Why leaders need to encourage authenticity at work

Mental Health Awareness Week: Why leaders need to encourage authenticity at work

Jessica Carmody, chair of KPMG's Be Mindful network, said authentic leadership is about sharing our flaws and accepting flaws in others

Mental Health Awareness Week is here again, and I have to admit to feeling the pressure to balance my day job as a learning and change senior manager at KPMG with my other role as Chair of our employee mental health network, Be Mindful.

I don’t have any problem admitting to this, though. In fact, I see it as part of my role at KPMG to talk openly about my mental health, to normalise conversations about this subject and be a ‘real’ model rather than a ‘role’ model for others.

You can’t see that I have an illness from looking at me, in fact you would be more likely to comment on my stylish shoes than any other aspect of my appearance which may give the impression I have poor mental health. My depression is – for much of the time – a completely hidden illness, and although when I am feeling unwell my energy levels at work and good humour might wain, I can and do function at work.

In my role as chair, I hear many accounts of people’s experiences of how their leaders view mental health. Whether it is a line manager working with an individual to help them come back to work, a senior leader supporting a whole team, or a partner who themselves has depression and is sharing their decision to talk about this.

In my own experience, I have had both poor and great experiences of leaders working with me when I have had problems with my mental health. On the poorer side, I have had decisions made for me about my role and entire pieces of work taken away from me without being discussed, which made me feel disempowered and like I was unable to make decisions. On the better side, I’ve been listened to when I’ve decided to talk about my health, and managers have made time for me and asked me what I have needed.

I’m grateful for that support, but I know there is still only a small number of leaders talking about their own experiences of poor mental health.

What is important to realise is that, of course not every leader has had a diagnosable mental illness like depression or anxiety, but most leaders would acknowledge that we all have times in our lives when we find our mental health has suffered. Perhaps we are under significant pressure because of personal events (both positive and not so positive), work and the world around us. At times like these it is absolutely acceptable, and should be encouraged, to take the time to care for oneself. I feel more leaders should be having conversations around what it means to be authentic and, in fact, real.

Last week at KPMG I was privileged to be on a panel with an extremely inspirational colleague who shared details of her previous experience of having an eating disorder. She spoke about how difficult this time was, and also how pivotal to her treatment and path to recovery her colleagues had been.

Her decision to speak was to encourage others to understand they can be honest about mental ill health in the workplace if they feel that they need support. It was also to recognise the difference her colleagues had made to her life. The young woman admitted that she felt she had taken a risk in sharing this personal story, in order to try to change the lives of parents of other young people, and other senior colleagues who might find themselves in the same role of supporting someone on their team.

I could see that her words were not only having a huge impact on me, but also bringing this powerful message alive to partners and colleagues that were also in attendance. Showing support and care for colleagues who are experiencing mental ill health can – quite literally – make a vital difference. A senior partner spoke to me after the event and told me how profoundly affected he had been by the event, and later, in an email to his team, expressed the need for everyone to better understand the signs of poor mental health.

Yet side by side with this spirit of openness and truthfulness we know that we are living in an Instagram world full of filtered images and digitally enhanced reality. For our children and young people, social media has set the expectation for us to be always on display. The same can be applied to our work lives. Many of us operate within glass walls and we are often visible to everyone around us, so the pressure to present our best selves, on the outside at least, is immense.

Therefore for me, authentic leadership is about sharing our own flaws and accepting flaws in others.  We must redefine what it is to be “real” in the workplace and not put so much importance on this image of perfection.  What you see on social media is often the best of people, and for leadership teams to be authentic they must accept and vocalise that more than one type of behaviour is acceptable.  It is ok to be different, and it is ok to be human.

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