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Team Intellect

Leadership practices for a culture of wellbeing, from the ex-HR Leader of Facebook and Netflix

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We often hear that a culture of wellbeing starts from the top. But it isn’t always about implementing sweeping changes and overhauling company policies. At Intellect’s Mental Health Festival 2023, founder of Culture Gram Shweta Shukla shares how leaders can work on themselves, their teams, and their organisations in little ways that add up.

Watch her session titled Cultures in Mental Health: Charting a Course to Mental Health Ownership and Sustainable Culture here:

Work on yourself

Shweta said that the first thing leaders need to focus on when creating sustainable cultures of mental wellness is themselves.

“Whether you like it or not, teams and organisations need a lot from their leader. And that doesn’t mean you have to be infallible or that you have to be perfect all the time, but that you have to be in touch with your own humanity,” she said. 

“Leaders who are self-reflective come across as far more open and honest to their teams. You may not have all the answers, but if you create this space for candidly sharing about your own journey with your team, it will make a huge difference.” 

In other words, leaders need to reflect on who they are and understand what triggers and energises them. They need to walk the talk by carving out time, space, and energy for their own mental health and wellbeing before they can even start that dialogue with their teams. Most importantly, they need to understand that they too need support. 

“It can be very, very lonely at the top,” Shweta said. “Often, in leadership positions, you don’t have the privilege of actually having a community right beside you. So create that community, figure out your trigger points, find out what gives you energy, and stay in touch with your humanity.” 

Work on your team

Back in the day, few organisations felt responsible for their employees’ mental health and wellbeing. But after the pandemic, the tides are starting to change. 

Organisations now recognise that employees spend anywhere from seven to 10 hours in the office and that both their workload and managers are key determinants of their wellbeing. According to a 2023 study by The Workforce Institute at UKG, nearly 70% of employees said that their managers had the greatest impact on their mental health, comparable with that of their partner.

“Many organisations are starting to talk about mental health, which is a very big positive. But I think a lot of the onus of mental health is put on the employee directly. Definitely, we all own our own space, our own mental health, but I think there is a role that organisations play that goes beyond just talking about it,” Shweta said.

Fundamentally, leaders need to sit down and think about their role in creating a culture of wellbeing. There are small things leaders can do to support their teams while figuring the big changes out, and one of them is clear communication. 

“Communication is the bedrock of creating transparency and support mechanisms. When, for any reason, communication stops in your organisation, stress is created,” Shweta said. 

She stressed that leaders need to communicate or even over-communicate everything. The company’s direction, the team’s goals and non-goals, and even – or especially – their problems.

“Fix dysfunctions. If there’s an interpersonal conflict that’s taking place that everybody knows but you do nothing about, these things fester and cause a huge amount of stress in the system… Often, high-performing teams become highly toxic as well as highly stressed when we leave things on the table.”

This communication extends to one-on-ones, which present an opportunity for leaders to understand employees better and encourage open dialogue. 

“Whether it’s your direct reports or anybody who you manage directly, it’s incredibly important that they have a space that is outside of project discussions where they can bring things up on a one-on-one basis. This has to be a space where people are comfortable sharing their failures, what they’re doing, what they’re getting stuck on,” Shweta said. 

“Supportive team cultures happen when you create clarity, communicate a lot, prioritise a lot, and create spaces for open and honest dialogue.”

Work on your organisation 

Creating a culture of wellbeing throughout your organisation is a long-term goal that requires commitment from stakeholders and members of the leadership team. Otherwise, it’s easy to simplify mental wellbeing and fall into the trap of treating it as a checkbox exercise. 

Mental health days and mindfulness classes are a good start, but they fall short of addressing  the complexities of workplace wellbeing. It’s important for leaders to evaluate the state of their employees’ mental health and brainstorm resources to invest in.

“This is where the quality of your leadership team comes in. You have to spend inordinate amounts of time bringing in the right leaders who not only believe in making sure that there is a results orientation but are also hugely focused on creating a sustainable organisation,” Shweta said.

Leaders with this mindset are more likely to reach out to employees who may be struggling rather than waiting for them to start the conversation. In the boardroom, they are also more likely to advocate for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), which is inextricably linked to workplace wellbeing and, consequently, the bottom line.

“Diverse workforces coming together and feeling a sense of belonging in the company is very crucial. The lack of that can create a huge problem for the company in terms of people feeling alienated or like they’re not part of the organisation,” Shweta said.

Creating a sustainable culture of wellbeing

The last thing that leaders need to understand about creating a sustainable culture of wellbeing is that it’s as much a process as it is an outcome. Unlike other aspects of running a business, the timelines and metrics of success involved aren’t so straightforward.

“Cultures aren’t going to change in one day, so don’t be dissuaded. Culture happens every day, every minute. It’s not a massive transformation exercise. It will require years and years. Every day you do something differently is a huge deal,” Shweta said.

It’s the little things that add up, and having a rock-solid foundation to build on can augment your efforts. And if your traditional Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) no longer serves the post-pandemic workforce and emerging generations of employees, an upgrade may be overdue.

Learn more about Intellect for businesses here.

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