Supportive leadership nurtures a mentally-healthy workplace, improves employee satisfaction, boosts productivity, and encourages creativity
Evaluating workplace happiness doesn’t need to be complicated. A quick temperature test or informal survey reveals areas for improvement
Leadership training that focuses on people-centric soft skills (i.e. communication self-awareness, and empathy) works best in certain formats
Have you heard of the recent trends such as the “Great Resignation”, “Quiet Quitting” and “Career Cushioning” that are transforming the job market? While most leaders are aware of these trends, many seem helpless to counter the problems that are causing employees to leave, underperform, and generally dislike their jobs.
A very sobering study by UKG suggests that nearly 70% of employees feel that their manager has more impact on their mental health than their therapist or their doctor, putting their influence on par with that of their life partner. And 60% of employees worldwide say their job is the biggest factor influencing their mental health. So it’s no wonder that people are quitting in droves if their workplace has a negative influence on their mental health and personal lives.
Increasingly, a healthy workplace environment and job satisfaction are highly prioritized by workers of all ages. Fortunately, improving morale in the workplace doesn’t have to be overly complicated. It all comes down to understanding the role of workplace mental health and taking steps to improve it. To do this, leaders need to evaluate their situation, adopt a supportive leadership style, and invest in growing the skillsets that create a happier work environment.
The importance of mental health in the workplace
First, it’s important to recognize that improving workplace conditions to promote mental health isn’t just about making people happy; it’s about improving outcomes across the board because morale has a huge impact on performance.
Other haunting facts emerged from the UKG study, including these results:
78% of respondents said stress negatively impacts their work performance.
71% say stress at work negatively impinges on their home life,
64% say it detracts from their wellbeing and
62% say it degrades their relationships.
Additionally, research conducted by McKinsey shows that “psychological safety”, which occurs “when employees feel comfortable asking for help, sharing suggestions informally, or challenging the status quo without fear of negative social consequences,” is a determining factor for adaptability and innovation at the individual, team, and organization levels. Indeed, McKinsey reports that organizations where employees feel psychologically safe “are more likely to innovate quickly, unlock the benefits of diversity, and adapt well to change.” Additionally, the UKG study indicates that:
For people with positive mental health, 63% are committed to their work and 80% say they’re energized.
81% of employees worldwide would prioritize good mental health over a high-paying job.
64% admit they would take a pay cut for a job that better supports their mental wellness.
Clearly, the benefits of a mentally-healthy work environment are significant for employers as they contribute to higher employee retention rates, dedication, and productivity. And the first step toward achieving better mental health in the workplace is to evaluate the work climate and identify areas that need improvement.
Evaluating workplace feelings
For managers and leaders, it’s essential to periodically measure how happy workers are in their teams and roles and discuss areas to improve.
One tool that can help you with this process is Gallup’s Employee Engagement Survey. It’s a 12-question proprietary survey created by Gallup based on research from 2.7 million workers across 50 industries worldwide. Even if you don’t want to engage in an organization-wide survey process, the survey’s 12 questions can help you to evaluate workplace happiness by evaluating your own feelings and those of your employees and team members. The questions help you to identify the areas where you and your employees could be getting more out of the workplace environment for a more positive work experience. It will also highlight areas that are troublesome, which can then be focused on for targeted leadership actions.
Another place to start evaluating your workplace’s mental health impact is to take the temperature of your teams. The impact of team climate on workplace happiness is clear. As McKinsey suggests that “A positive team climate—in which team members value one another’s contributions, care about one another’s well-being, and have input into how the team carries out its work—is the most important driver of a team’s psychological safety” and yet “only 43 percent of all respondents reported a positive climate within their team.”
For this purpose, Dr. Stefano Borzillo, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at EHL, suggests: “Taking time out to understand the dynamics of how your team is functioning, how team members are reacting to each other and to focus on outcomes and team goals – these are all important steps for identifying dysfunctions and, more importantly, collectively thinking about how to address them.”
What is supportive leadership vs consultative leadership?
Supportive and consultative leadership styles are the two most effective leadership styles for promoting psychological safety in the workplace according to the research by McKinsey. While these two styles can be viewed independently, they are often found in equal parts in leaders who foster a mentally-positive workplace environment.
The supportive leadership style involves exactly what its name suggests: supporting employees by providing them with the tools and resources needed to work autonomously. Supportive leaders ensure that everyone on their team has the right skills, tools, and resources to complete their assigned tasks and achieve success in their role.
Similarly, the consultative leadership style is aptly named because it describes a consultant-style role where the leader assists their team members in solving problems and improving outcomes. They do so by seeking an exchange of opinions and insights, discussing options, and listening to feedback, before offering recommendations and implementing agreed-upon solutions.
Used in tandem, these two leadership styles create a sense of workplace well-being by making employees feel supported, valued, and understood.
"Cultivating supportive leadership is the cornerstone of workplace happiness."
Investing in top-notch leadership education and development paves the path to a healthy and thriving ambiance, where the seeds of well-being and professional success are sown.
Supportive leaders maintain positive professional relationships with their colleagues by being people-centric and paying particular attention to communication and feelings. Here are the essential areas to work on in developing a supportive leadership style:
Supportive leaders contribute to a healthy workplace by developing self-awareness in themselves and others. Research by Harvard suggests that “developing self-awareness helps us be more creative, make sounder decisions, communicate better and build stronger relationships.” The key is knowing one’s strengths and aligning them with career goals.
Be an active listener
Being an active listener requires listening with the heart and quieting the mind. It requires one’s full attention to identify the underlying meaning and feelings being expressed by the speaker, and then to reflect those things back with thoughtful responses that show true understanding, not just a quick reply or solution.
Open up communication
Open communication allows people to express themselves freely and candidly, without the fear of judgment or derision. It also requires a certain loss of ego and a well-established trust. Leaders can set an example by seeking feedback, encouraging true honesty, and leading exercises to break down barriers in team meetings or one-on-one sessions.
Indulge in sponsorship
Another key quality of supportive leaders is their affinity for sponsorship, which is the practice of enabling and encouraging others’ success ahead of one’s own. To do this, a supportive leader must recognize the talent and best qualities of each person in their team and give them opportunities to shine in their strengths.
Provide feedback & recognition
Adding to the foundation of all the above-mentioned traits, the supportive leader provides constructive feedback and gives recognition where it’s due. This practice of discussing and applauding the work of others creates a positive feedback cycle that constantly improves and uplifts the collaborative work experience.
Embrace a service mindset
Another variety of supportive leadership style is the Servant Leadership style, in which leaders put emphasis on serving others, including their subordinates and society at large.
"Servant leaders put the interests of their teams and team members above their own."
They create a trusting relationship, and support the professional development of their subordinates with the purpose of helping them reach their full potential.
The results from the McKinsey study show that “investing in leadership development across an organization—for all leadership positions—is an effective method for cultivating the combination of leadership behaviors that enhance psychological safety.”
This is an important reminder that while some leadership qualities can be honed individually, other leadership skills and mindsets are best developed at an organizational level with specialized learning opportunities that open the mind to new ways of thinking.
According to the research by McKinsey, the best results from leadership education come when companies “invest in leadership-development experiences that are emotional, sensory, and create aha moments. Learning experiences that are immersive and engaging are remembered more clearly.” This is exactly what EHL seeks to provide through an array of short courses for professional development, delivered on campus in Switzerland and Singapore, and online.
"Here at the EHL, we know that "happy employees create happy customers" so we prioritize leadership skills that contribute to a mentally-healthy workplace."
We facilitate learning experiences that push learners outside of their comfort zone and toward self-awareness, such as personalized mentoring sessions and multicultural group work sessions. Instead of just focusing on academic performance and individual success, we also evaluate students on their ability to handle stress, communicate, and create meaningful connections with their peers and colleagues.
Dr Achim Schmitt, PhD Full Professor and Associate Dean of EHL Graduate School.
Indeed, a common pitfall of leadership training programs is the exaggerated focus on content and knowledge building. But that’s not what most leaders need to realize their full potential. As stated by the McKinsey report, leadership programs must “prompt leaders to engage with and shift their underlying beliefs, assumptions, and emotions to bring about lasting mindset changes.”
To tie it all together, we offer three recommendations for all businesses that want to get the best results out of their most valuable asset (their people!). First, is to recognize the importance of workplace mental health and psychological security and invest in it accordingly. Second, is to evaluate their workplace environment and the feelings of their people regularly to look for areas of trouble. And last, but certainly not least, to invest in leadership development programs that specifically develop the soft skills and people-centric mindset that is the heart of supportive leadership.