Recent reporting suggests that managers impact people’s mental health significantly—to a greater degree than therapists or doctors and on par with partners. For most managers this is sobering and even potentially scary data. But should managers have that much of an effect?
It makes sense that when people spend upwards of 80% of their time engaged in their work, their leader would make a difference to their overall experience. But healthy boundaries must also be part of the equation.
If you’re a leader, there are some important considerations for your interactions and the conditions you create for people to thrive and do their best work. There is a downside of your potential influence, and you may think first of the risks and the high stakes—but the good news is you can have powerfully positive effects on people and their experiences as well. You won’t be perfect, but you can do your best—and this will matter.
Join the conversation: What has a leader done to contribute positively to your work experience? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this article or on LinkedIn here.
Because work occupies so much of people’s lives, it’s reasonable that it would have a significant impact on their moods, wellbeing and outlook—and there are key dynamics that drive this reality.
#1 – Power
As a leader, you inherently control much that affects your employees’ lives. You hold power over their pay and promotions. You also have significant influence over their reputation based on performance reviews and the electronic record of your assessments, comments and evaluations. You generally have control over their work hours, work location, the content of their work and even their career growth—through development opportunities you provide.
You can appropriately manage this power by providing people with as much choice and control as possible—giving alternatives and flexibility to the extent you can. These may include options you provide about the projects people work on, the development they pursue or the hours or locations where they work.
In the final analysis, the final say is typically yours, but fostering open communication and choice are positive for people.
#2 – Influence
As a leader you also have outsize influence. People tend to put a laser focus on leader behaviors, language and approaches. Whether you mean to or not, you are a model for others’ behaviors. Because you’ve progressed to a leadership role, the inherent message is that the organization values and has rewarded what you do—so your approach is amplified.
Human nature also tends to be egocentric, so people may tend to feel they are the reason for your mood or behavior. If you walk in with a scowl, people may wonder what they’ve done, why you’re frustrated with them or what’s going on in the organization to cause your demeanor—when really you just didn’t sleep well the night before.
Increasingly, people may also over-emphasize your messages. With the deluge of information from so many sources and the uncertainty of the last few years, leaders have become a “source of truth” that people pay attention to.
Often, people look to their managers to share information and also to interpret it—looking for direction on what it means for the organization, for their role and for them. Again, it may not be your intention to have such a significant influence, but it is likely the reality of your impact.
You can manage your effect by being aware of how you’re feeling and how you’re coming across to people. Be open about what’s driving your behaviors and talk explicitly about your values and how they’re affecting your choices. Constructive, productive cultures are characterized by more openness and authenticity—so when you’re clear about what’s occurring and why, it creates positive conditions and can reduce ambiguity or uncertainty.
#3 – Centrality, Identity and Spillover
It’s also important to know that work is often central in employees’ lives. It occupies a large proportion of time, but work is also part of people’s identities. Typically, they derive much of their sense of self and esteem through their work. They accomplish feelings of meaning based on what they do, the expertise they deliver and the results they achieve. Work is also a source of belonging because it offers a shared sense of social identity. Common goals and the opportunity to come together with purpose provide unity and meaning.
Work also has spillover effects. Multiple studies have found when people are happy and satisfied at work, they report less stress and greater joy in their time away from work. They even report they are better parents and partners.
You can affect people’s experience of work by reinforcing how they matter and celebrating their contributions. When you respect people for all they bring to the table and the multiple roles they fulfill—both inside and outside of work—you contribute to their wellbeing. And when you create a culture of inclusion, openness and trust, it has significant positive effects—inside and outside of work.
But even with your power and influence and with the importance of work, each person also has responsibility for their own happiness and mental wellbeing. So as a leader, you’re not responsible for others. But as part of a community, you are responsible to others—to create the conditions for a positive work experience.
You hold much within your control, but of course there’s a lot that’s outside of your control as well—things in employees’ personal lives and emotional lives.
Effective relationships have a balance of responsibilities. You will respect people and treat them fairly. You’ll provide a sense of purpose and recognition for their good work. You’ll create a positive culture on the team and you’ll give people growth opportunities. You’ll do your best, and you’ll need to rely on others to do their part as well.
We’re All Adults Here
The most effective leaders treat people like adults, giving them as much choice and control as possible within the constraints of what teams and organizations need and what the work responsibilities demand. Put people on equal footing by encouraging them to ask questions and challenge you professionally. Ask for feedback, and provide feedback as well. When you create openness in a relationship, it tends to foster trust and nurture wellbeing.
Also avoid trying to fix people’s problems. By trying to solve things, you inadvertently disempower people—so empower them instead by encouraging them to work through a challenge with a customer or resolve a conflict with a colleague. Or if they are facing a personal issue, connect them with resources who can help.
Reinforce the belief you have in people, and offer support—but avoid taking on their burdens yourself. You want to demonstrate caring and compassion, but this doesn’t mean you own the responsibilities which are theirs.
One of the most important things you can do for people is to ensure they feel seen and heard and know they matter. New data from Joblist finds when people feel invisible, they are more likely to experience burnout, imposter syndrome and loneliness. They also report having less comfort with their performance and engagement, and they worry about their job security. Ensure you’re helping people to feel seen, heard, appreciated and understood.
An Amazing Opportunity
While you can worry about your effects, it’s more useful to consider the opportunity you have to create great work experiences. Connect with people, foster trust and build effective teams. Drive results worth celebrating and be authentic and vulnerable. People aren’t looking for perfection, but they will appreciate your efforts, your progress and seeing you do your best to help them be their best.
Join the conversation: What has a leader done to contribute positively to your work experience? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this article or on LinkedIn.
If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org . Or call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Also refer to the CDC Mental Health home page for additional information and resources.