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Mental Health and Leadership – Lessons from the Front Line


During my last deployment to Afghanistan, I was privileged to travel to four Australian patrol bases and speak with the Army search engineers midway through their deployment. These are the guys detecting the improvised explosive devices (IEDs), down on their guts in the dust with their faces just centimeters from a bomb that can kill them and their mates. It doesn’t get much tougher than that. While individual hardiness of course plays a large role, how well diggers coped with the constant exposure to threat was also impacted by how well they were led. The actions of their chain of command throughout their deployment and during critical incidents (e.g. IED blasts and small arms attacks) would impact on how soldiers coped.

So here’s the thing; the leadership actions that would buffer soldiers in Afghanistan were the same actions that helped soldiers cope with non-combat operations like peacekeeping missions in East Timor. And they are the same actions that promote good mental health while soldiers are in barracks in Australia. Good leadership is good leadership regardless of the task and supervisors and managers in Australian businesses can employ the same tactics to get the most from their staff and mitigate the impact of workplace stress.

Provide top cover
Organisational stress (stress resulting from workplace factors like role overload and poor role clarity) is just as problematic as critical incident stress. A soldier would rather be shot at than deal with a boss who micromanages which can happen when sh*t rolls downhill. Create a buffer between your staff and difficult workplace factors that may be out of your control. Train (and trust) your staff to do their jobs well and give them a level of autonomy. Take responsibility for the inevitable mistakes that happen within your section and have a lessons-learned rather than punitive approach with your staff. Ask for their version of the situation before concluding what went wrong. You may have to cop one on the chin with your boss but the loyalty, trust and open communication this will promote with your employees will make it worthwhile.

Know your people
Part of the military ethos is that a commander works for his men, not the other way around. Good leaders know their staff. They talk to their staff about career progression and vocational goals with a view to assisting them to be successful. They also understand each employee’s family dynamic and the particular stressors they face at home. Consider flexible working arrangements and how you can support your employees to achieve their goals.

Get comfortable with straight talk
Since 2002 the ADF has had a mental health strategy Keep Your Mates Safe (KYMS). Part of this includes specific training on how to ask your mates about mental illness, specifically about suicide. While there is a way to go, the Army has been working hard on reducing the stigma of mental illness by making even suicide a safe topic to discuss. Soldiers by nature are comfortable with conflict and the culture of straight talk means that problems can be addressed before they become emergencies. You may not be comfortable talking about mental health concerns with your staff however as a manager you have a level of responsibility for the health and safety of your employees. Learn skills on how to directly address mental health concerns with your staff so that performance (and wellbeing) is optimum.

Give regular performance feedback (good and bad)
The military has regular formal feedback mechanisms throughout the year to ensure that there are no surprises when the annual appraisal occurs. There is also informal, immediate feedback that allows for instant adjustment of behavior. While this has a tendency to be negative in nature (feedback about errors, shortfalls etc) it is constructive as it explains how to improve. Provide a pathway for your employees to follow to improve performance and don’t forgot to recognise work well done. You may not feel that staff deserve a pat on the back for doing their job however acknowledgement, praise, gratitude and recognition are all powerful emotions that can help buffer against workplace stress. The more specific the praise, the bigger the impact. Consider the difference between “Thank you for that. Good job.” and “Thank you for your work on the [project]. I know it was tough for you to balance your other tasks and still meet the deadlines. You did a good job”.

Workplace Health and Safety legislation imbues managers with an increased responsibility when it comes with employee mental health because supervisors have a significant impact that can foster resilience in staff. If you would like to learn more about how to improve your skills as a manager in supporting workplace mental health contact Mindset Abilities.

Mindset Abilities holds free mental health and wellbeing talks at the Parramatta RSL on the second Tuesday of the month. See the website for times and topics.


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