Shift the needle of improving mental health through leadership behaviour

To address the root causes of work exhaustion, organisations can start with the issues identified by employees, writes Jasmine Liew.
By: | July 5, 2024

While organisations can provide mental health programmes to help employees cope with demanding workloads, it requires employees to be proactive in seeking help. Employees may be passive about seeking help or they may feel helpless if their organisation does not provide mental health services.

There is a saying, “People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This applies to reducing burnout in Singapore through leadership behaviour that cares for its people and not merely for performance. Based on a survey by Telus Health involving 1,000 Singapore employees, the top reason for burnout was a heavy workload, with a lack of support as one of the key factors.

To address the root causes of work exhaustion in organisations, we can start with the issues identified by employees as low-hanging fruit to shift the needle and gain traction. Since we spend a significant amount of time in the workplace, leadership behaviours that show care through Acts of Service, which is one of the five languages of appreciation at work, are essential. Leaders can provide support by reducing employees’ workload through a “stop and minus mindset”. This can be done through monthly or quarterly work reviews to stop and minus tasks and processes that are unnecessary, inefficient or irrelevant. By removing rather than adding workload, leaders can provide bandwidth and a breather for team members to focus on what matters for the team and the organisation.

Years back, I was conducting a team retreat for a merger between the retail operations and the consumer sales department. The purpose of the retreat was to integrate the work processes. In most of our work reviews, we tend to focus on what we should start doing and add on new tasks into the existing workload, which would exacerbate the situation of a heavy workload for the team. Instead of adding more work tasks, we started with a process known as “stop, start, change, continue”.

Team leaders and members were involved and engaged at the start of the work integration session. They were able to review on what they should stop doing by eliminating or reducing existing work processes that served them well in the past but are irrelevant or unnecessary based on the current and future state of the organisation and the team. Although this process of “stop doing” is an unconventional way of conducting a work review, the team was uplifted and motivated as they felt they were able to free up more time and resources to focus on what they should start to do, change and continue in tandem with the organisation’s strategy and business plan.

“Employees need to be ensured by their leaders that they will not be judged or reprimanded as being incompetent or being less resilient. There is a need to remove leaders’ bias that employees who share work stressors are less capable than their peers.”Jasmine Liew

Moreover, when employees have work stressors such as a heavy workload, health, family and personal challenges and face difficulties in learning a new skill or a work process, leaders can encourage them to ask for help and provide open support when there is a climate of psychological safety in team meetings. Employees need to be ensured by their leaders that they will not be judged or reprimanded as being incompetent or being less resilient. There is a need to remove leaders’ bias that employees who share work stressors are less capable than their peers. If these employees face negative repercussions, such as receiving a lower performance grade, which affect their career progression and bonuses, they will not share and ask for help in the future.

READ MORE: Improving mental health at work starts with increasing awareness

To encourage our employees to raise their red flag when they face overwhelming workload, leaders must take ownership and show that they care and support employees, rather than outsource to mental health providers as a means to an end to improve mental health. The root cause of burnout issues starts within the team and workplace environment. Leaders and HR can play an influential role in by prioritising leadership behaviours that demonstrate care and support to their employees.  Organisations can then address burnout and improve employees’ mental health and productivity.

About the author: Jasmine Liew is Premier Partner of The 5 Languages of Appreciation at Work and the first Fearless Organization Psychological Safety Practitioner in Singapore at Breakthrough Catalyst. As a Doctor of Business Administration Candidate at The University of Canberra, her research interests are the role of psychological safety in upskilling and leading organisation change effectively.