Series: Leadership for women in STEMM - mental toughness for mental health (2/5)

The statistics relating to the mental health and wellbeing of people across the globe have been and continues to be immensely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. As many as 78% of adults believe their mental health has worsened this year due to COVID 19, according to Professor Helen Christiansen, a professor of Mental Health at the University of NSW. Many hurting people are reaching out to psychologists and counselors for help. But many are not.

There is still a massive stigma associated with asking for help on mental health related issues.

It seems easier to take a few days off when the symptoms are headache, fever, and a runny nose. Feelings and behaviours that signal mental health issues vary in type and intensity. Many employees are worried about what their boss will think, how their colleagues will judge them. Will this entry on their HR record impact their chances of being selected for the next promotion?


Leadership by its nature requires us to work under higher levels of pressure. This is par for the course when you have the responsibility of leading projects and people.


My message today is to highlight and hopefully help to normalise the reality of just how fragile our mental state can be, and to give you a few quick hacks on how to snap yourself back into focus long enough to get the job done or to a point where it’s OK to give it to a colleague or to come back to it in a day or two. These suggestions are not meant to replace clinical advice or minimise the seriousness of your mental state.


I can remember my mental health took a major nose-dive about 11 years ago. I was in a job that was not winning. I had a boss who was not backing me and yet I was digging my heels in to prove he was wrong, and that I was turning the business around and that I was worthy of his respect. I was also terrified of losing my salary because I thought I was too old to get another job at that level - a form of the curse of the golden handcuffs I guess - and more than anything, I was terrified if my work colleagues found out I was taking time off to take care of my mental health, that they would reject me even more and not trust me for leadership roles in upcoming projects and promotions.


I refused to allow the doctor to write “stress leave” or anxiety or anything that sounded like I was not handling the pressure of my role on my medical certificate. I remember the reason for the 2 weeks leave was very vague. And I rehearsed what I said on the phone to my boss many times so I would not let the cat out of the bag or sound too dysfunctional or share too much or be overly apologetic.


Then whilst I took the 2 week leave and attended an outpatient mental health recovery program each day, I drove stealthily to and fro the centre looking around in fear that I would be found out.

And the terror of returning to work thinking “they all know for sure…. what do I say when they ask where I’ve been?”. Then when nobody asked me, I thought that was weird too. Then I thought “well they know but don’t know what to say about it so they say nothing. Or maybe they know, and they don’t care. Or worse - maybe they feel so sorry for me and know I’m going to be sacked anyway so they have already written me off.”


Oh, the power and colour of our imagination….and those ingrained automatic negative thoughts!

I'm pleased to report that I did return to my role after my 2-week sabbatical with a renewed vigour and sense of control and acceptance for where I was at, for where my career was at, and a sense of going with the flow until it emerged what my next best step would be. And I noticed the behaviours of my bosses and colleagues around me and let that be as it was.

And you’ll be pleased to hear that within 6 months of taking that mental health sojourn, I was invited to join a different organisation and began the best job ever! With more responsibility and money. And it was only in hindsight once I was out of that first work environment that I could see how toxic and detrimental it had been for me.


So where does Mental Toughness fit into Mental Health?

Mental Toughness is a psychology framework, developed over the last 2 decades by Professor Peter Clough, a clinical and organisational psychologist, and Doug Strycharczyk, CEO of AQR International and a behavioural economist. This psychology framework of the 4 C’s of Mental Toughness being Confidence, Control, Challenge and Commitment has some 100 academic peer reviewed research publications by independent researchers looking into the how’s and why’s of success in high-level athletes, business leaders and educators.


These 4 main personality traits that underpin our mental toughness, defined as our ability to respond rather than automatically react to stressors, challenges and pressures irrespective of circumstances. I see a lot of confidence when things are going well or when the leader is inspired and experiencing progress with their work, but what happens when things go wrong? When someone doesn't do what you expect them to? When the unexpected happens?


Here are 3 quick things you can do to regroup and get yourself back in the saddle when Imposter Syndrome or other automatic negative thoughts creep in…. Often, we don’t even see them coming or realise we are “in it” until your coach or mentor or an observant friend calls you on it. Give these a go-to reboot your confidence:

  1. Visualisation: Refocus on your vision, mission, and purpose for the task at hand. Future-pace yourself to that endpoint when the project is finished and successful and you are celebrating and are grateful that you pushed through all the hurdles and obstacles along the way. Name the feelings of you as that winner! What are you seeing yourself doing? Thinking? Feeling? And what is now possible for you and others because you have persevered and not quit when the going got tough.

  2. Disassociation: What would Sir Bruce Shackleton or Ruth Bader Ginsburg think and do in this situation?

  3. Reach out to your leadership coach and ask for an appropriate diagnostic to reassess your unique traits, behaviours, strengths, and gaps. The MTQPlus assessment can be highly therapeutic in providing a fresh data set to deepen your self awareness, and it provides a framework to guide your self reflection and coach yourself back into the game. The MTQPlus helps you to choose what to do about your situation and why something works and why other things might not.

Confidence is key to success in these turbulent times. For women in STEM, confidence is a must for those who strive to make big things happen.


Please follow my ZedAxis LinkedIn page https://www.linkedin.com/company/zedaxis-leadership-consultancy/and let’s keep the conversation going there.


With thanks - this article was written by Lia Zalums & edited by Jaishree Subrahmaniam.

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