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Authentic leadership positively impacts employees' workplace wellness

Autonomous Autonomous | Apr 3, 2017

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We all have stumbled lots on articles about how authentic leadership can help increase productivity out of your team. But only a few mentions how authentic leadership can positively impact your employee's wellness in the workplace. In this article, we're going to discover the 2 most important topics including why it's important to take care of mental health and how to keep stress and turnover down in the workplace based on science. 


Mental health issues in the workplace

Happiness and mental health are not the same thing. The debate on the definition of happiness is never-ending because it is, ultimately, subjective. Not to say that it’s not worth discussing whether being “happy” makes you more productive at work or whether this notion that we have to be happy all the time is actually stifling. But mental health has a much clearer definition and is undoubtedly more important in the workplace. It’s also far more taboo. Why?

The workplace is still one of the final frontiers of destigmatizing mental health issues. This means that while we skirt around mental health by talking about the enigma of happiness and how it relates to productivity, we’re flushing the measurable yet invaluable psychological capital of employees down the toilet.

Think about the trajectory technology has put us on in the workplace. Without stipulating about the future capabilities of AI, the most valuable things that humans bring to work every day are, and will be more and more, their capacities for creative, critical, problem-solving thinking.

Psychological capital has rapidly been growing as the most valuable aspect of building any business, while our understanding of and acceptance of mental health issues has been stalled. Instead of wagging fingers about the political correctness of taking mental health off the taboo list, successful leaders will start seeing mental wellness strategies as something as essential as job training. Psychological capital is not a made-up term, it has decades of research behind it, including research on how to cultivate it.

If what you think of when you think of a "happy" employee is someone who is motivated to succeed at a task, what you are thinking of is called “hope” in the context of psychological capital. Someone who expects that their work will have a positive outcome or impact has “optimism”, while someone who handles criticism, failure and risk well has “resilience”. Someone who has the confidence in themselves to mobilize all of the above has “self-efficacy” and an employee with all four of these traits has a lot of psychological capital. Unlike “happiness”, psychological capital has been shown in several studies to be essential to being successful long-term in the workplace.

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Not coincidentally, all of these traits—hope, optimism, resilience, and self-efficacy—are related to some of the most common mental health issues that many people face, including depression and anxiety.

The idea that mental health needs to be addressed openly every workplace wellness program has been slowly bleeding into mainstream discussion the past few years, as normalizing mental health issues, in general, becomes a more mainstream theme. As Drew Hendricks wrote recently for Inc. “The corporate world can, and seems to be, taking steps towards normalizing a very normal problem.” But, at the same time, of course, our understanding of mental health issues and how to best treat them is also evolving.


High workplace stress can lead to a high turnover rate. 

High turnover is a sign of something gone awry at any company. Occasionally it’s an intentional restructuring, but often, new companies or companies with stagnant leadership face higher-than-normal rates of turnover for extended periods of time with no single identifiable cause or tipping point.

While each organization will have its own set of unique factors that contribute to the turnover rate, one nearly universal and well-studied cause of instability in human resources is stress. In the first part of this article, we have argued the case for placing a much higher value on psychological capital and mental health, both shown to not only lessen stress in the workplace but raise people’s individual tolerance to stress.

So for the founders and leaders of businesses, especially small to medium and startup companies with limited resources, it can be difficult to know exactly how to go about this. Luckily, there is one particular tactic that has been shown to improve employee's psychological capital, which then helping mental health and keeping stress down over decades of research and anecdotal experience: authentic leadership. While it’s most important for managers sand c-suite players to cultivate these attributes, the traits that make an authentic leader are useful for every level of an organization. It can make the difference between being an “almost-made-it” or cutting-edge company.


How authentic leadership positively improves employee's mental health and stress management?  

Basically, authentic leadership boils down to common sense principles for leading a good life, having good relationships, and making good decisions, but within the power structures of work environments it can be much more difficult than it sounds to consistently act on these principles. Trust is one of the basic foundations of all human interactions, so unless you are, in all seriousness, a manipulative sociopath, authenticity is one of the most important keys to trust.

“It continues to surprise me how many leaders attempt to be one way at work, while their “true” personality emerges outside of work. Once a CEO reminded me, “Leadership is acting.” And it surprises me when these same leaders seem shocked or confused when their employees don’t trust them, don’t like them, and can’t really wait to work elsewhere.” - Kevin Kruse in Forbes

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(We all know what kind of leader this is...) 

First, let’s get the detractions and/or misunderstandings of authentic leadership out of the way. The concept of authentic leadership has been around since 2003, when former chairman and CEO of Medtronic, Bill George, published the original book on the idea. Since then several other writers and business-leaders have used the concept as a jumping-off point to talk about, for example, the importance of inspiring confidence by “faking it until you make it” when in a position of authority in times of crisis. As Wharton School professor Adam Grant wrote in the New York Times: “’Be yourself’ is actually terrible advice… Nobody wants to see your true self.”

Being an “authentic” leader and “being yourself” are not the same. An authentic leader under great duress does not break down and cry in front of their team, even if they feel like it. An authentic leader is attuned to their own inner workings, meaning they would be aware that they are stressed, but also attuned to the effect their words and actions have on the people around them. Choosing to remain composed in a stressful situation is not faking it until you make it, it is a conscious choice based on your awareness of yourself and those around you.

Conversely, burying stressful sensations and your natural reactions to them, denying your reactions on a conscious or subconscious level, “faking it” in other words, makes for a callus leader. It’s unnatural and extremely difficult to selectively tune out your own reactions to various situations without also tuning out what is happening in the hearts and minds of the people around you. Being self-aware makes you more empathetic, empathy leads to genuine insights. Being empathetic does not necessarily make you impulsively reactive. That is authentic leadership.


4 easy steps for every leader to practice authentic leadership 

“The essence of authentic leadership is emotional intelligence, or EQ, as articulated by Daniel Goleman. People with high IQs and low EQs can hardly be called authentic leaders. In contrast to IQ, which basically does not change in one’s adult lifetime, EQ can be developed. The first and most important step on this journey is gaining self-awareness.” - Bill George, author of Authentic Leadership

Here is the basic outline for authentic leadership, adapted from a summary by Ronald E Riggio, Ph.D. in Psychology Today. Again, these are useful guidelines for every single person in an organization. As productivity coach and former CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, Michael Hyatt, puts it: “Holding a title and a high rung on the company org chart doesn’t mean you’re a leader. Even people without these things can exert influence and thus leadership.” (He goes on to say that leadership is more than influence in an article also related to authentic leadership.)

1. Work at being self-aware

Self-awareness is not an achievement, it is a constant process. As mentioned above, self-awareness is key to trust, empathy, and insights of value when working with other people.

2. Genuine, honest and straightforward

Most people are exquisitely attuned to detect on a subconscious level when someone is being disingenuous. Hidden agendas and manipulation may be difficult to articulate overtly, but basic trust in founded on honesty.

3. Balanced decision-making

Decision making is contingent on the first two points. Authentic leaders seek out and consider input from their team but ultimately are decisive without being impulsive. This is impossible to do without having open, honest dialogue with your colleagues and enough self-awareness to avoid impulsivity.

4. An inherent moral compass

Leaders without purpose will have a difficult time rallying other authentic people around them. Just as people tend to distrust disingenuous people with low self-awareness, a leader without a rudder will likely see people jump ship frequently.


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If you have already practiced authentic leadership and see positive impact on workplace wellness at your offices, now it's the time to tackle on your office design. Check out our series on how to redo your office design to create the vibe of startup

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