Part Two: Building The Better Boss: The Why

In my previous blog, I shared some context around what we understand are challenges facing leaders today and a little about how Refinery decided to design a program that focuses on supporting them through those challenges – with focused development around mental health and wellness in the workplace. In this blog, I’ll share why we believe this is important work for us to be doing.   

For 20 years, Refinery has been paying close attention to the impact of our work on individual participants.  We’ve noticed a strong positive correlation between our leadership development initiatives and their overall mental wellbeing. Participants report coming away feeling better equipped to cope with the pressures of their day-to-day lives and inspired to make the necessary shifts to capitalize on opportunities, with a renewed sense of purpose, direction, power and intentionality. Likewise, we’ve been noting the positive trickle effect they create through their leadership at work – in the context of teams, we see enhanced levels of trust, engagement, inclusion, autonomy, collaboration, innovation, and retention – indicators of a healthy culture.  

I have been personally invested in better understanding the connection points between leadership development and psychological safety as a means of reducing workplace stress, and mental health-related absenteeism/presenteeism. Prior to entering the world of learning and development, I spent a decade working in Health and Safety, with a specific focus on Disability Management – an industry which solidified my unwavering preference for effective hazard control over illness/injury, and return-to-work management. It occurred to me after an approximate 6-month learning curve at Refinery (a period of time during which I underwent loads of personal development myself – learning, observing, sensemaking, and expanding my vocabulary), that my past and present worlds were inexplicably intertwined. It began to dawn on me that when it comes to mental health in the workplace, the vast majority of corporate initiatives and programs are either policy-driven or reactive in nature. If we accept that mental health IS health, then my argument is that prevention efforts should be targeting both physical and psychological health and safety. My initial view was that this was something much easier to suggest than to implement because naturally, physical hazards are far easier to identify and systemically control. Now that I am fully immersed in the business of understanding human behaviour, my beliefs around this have shifted. My upgraded view is that if we know what to look for, assess, and pay attention to, prevention efforts that target workplace mental health are possible and within reach.   

The good news is that we have been paying attention and we know what to look for. The subject of mental health is one that hits close to home for many of us at Refinery and making a meaningful contribution in this space is a personal goal for us and not a mere business opportunity. With that, we have no intention of withholding our findings and how we as development professionals make sense of them and plan to leverage them in our work with leaders.  

When we approach leadership development, our philosophy is that the process should always begin with “leading self”. Only once we’ve deepened our self-awareness – understand our personal operating systems and wiring – and know how to use those insights to make conscious decisions about our behaviour, can we move to a place where we have the knowledge and capacity to lead and develop others successfully. Our planned approach for addressing mental health head-on through development is in line with this same principle. We know leaders, and we know many care deeply about their people and want to put them first; but as the airline safety announcement instructs, you have to put your own mask on before assisting other passengers. 

With a general and familiar structure for the approach in mind (Part 1: Self / Part 2: Others), we narrowed our focus down to two key categories that we believe are central to mental health in the workplace: Psychological Resilience (Self) and Psychological Safety (Others).  

In my next blog, Building The Better Boss: The How I’ll share how we plan to target development around psychological resilience and safety, and the impact this work can have on others. 

Jelena Vath is the Director of Design at Refinery, a global leadership development firm that specializes in experiential leadership development programs.  

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