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1st Jan, 1970

Mental Health Awareness Week 2017: The Connection between Leadership and Good Mental Health

Posted: May 9, 2017 14:31 by Simon Anderson

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The Connection between Leadership and ‘Good Mental Health’

This week is mental health awareness week. A time for us to reflect on how we view mental health and how it impacts our lives. To quote the Mental Health Foundation from their report Surviving or Thriving? The state of the UK’s Mental Health

“Good mental health is an asset that helps us to thrive. It is not just the absence of a mental health problem but the ability to think, feel and act in a way that allows us to enjoy life and deal with the challenges it presents…Current levels of good mental health are disturbingly low…We have made great strides in the health of our bodies and our life expectancy, we now need to achieve the same for the good health of our minds…”

So mental health is not just about reducing the likelihood of issues such anxiety and depression, it is about equipping our minds with the ability to be happy and enjoy life!  

In my opinion, to work towards ‘good mental health’ in our society, it is necessary to understand feelings of happiness and how we have evolved to attain them. We then at least know its source and can work towards doing more of what makes us happy.

Cast yourself back 50,000 years. At our most basic level, human beings are equipped with a set of bio-chemical systems inside us that work to encourage us to do things that are in the interest of our survival as a collective. When we behave in a certain way that we believe will improve our chances of survival, our body rewards us with chemically induced feelings of happiness, pride, joy, love, fulfilment and other such feelings of that ilk.

We enjoy these feelings and we crave them, so we repeat the activity that gave us these feelings in the first place. The perfect formula for behaving in the interests of survival. This is why as a species we survived from the cave man days until now, because we are a collective animal that is very good at working together.

We associate working together with survival so we act together to experience those feelings we feel when we act as such. For example, 50,000 years ago when the cave man went out hunting and brought back food he felt pride, fulfilment and happiness, that he had contributed to the collective.

Feelings associated with contribution to the collective evolved as we did, so in the modern-day context, a mother and father who sees their child graduate from university, are filled with pride as they have raised and helped educate this child to contribute to society to further increase its chances of survival. A manager who has sacrificed a chunk of their time helping someone get a promotion at work will feel a sense of satisfaction in helping develop that individual who in turn will increasingly contribute to the survival of the collective, or in this context organisation or company.

Four major bio-chemicals determine feelings of ‘happiness’ and what role each of them plays in the actions and practices of the collective. These chemicals are: Endorphins, Dopamine, Serotonin and Oxytocin.   

Endorphins and Dopamine:

Endorphins and Dopamine are what are often called the ‘selfish’ chemicals, in that you don’t need anyone’s help to get them. They are purely for self-gain, not necessarily at the expense of someone else but they could be.

The role of Endorphins are to mask physical pain. The Human animal evolved to endure. It felt good to hunt, tracking an animal on foot for hours and then finally make the kill. It is quite physically demanding but the endorphins masked the pain while the activity occurred and then lingered so they felt great straight after they had finished. This is what many runners in a modern context would call ‘the runners high.’ Because it felt so good to hunt, people would want that feeling again, so they would volunteer to hunt in the future. A perfect bio-chemical reward mechanism for ensuring people want to hunt and provide food for the collective.

In a modern, office-based workplace, an endorphin rush is difficult to achieve. People have to make a point of being physically active in the form of an ‘exercise session’ for an allotted amount of time and it doesn’t necessarily contribute to the survival of the collective. It is instead a necessity to ensure their own personal feelings of physical and mental wellbeing and survival. This is why it is so important to think of exercise as an essential part of not just physical fitness but mental wellbeing as well. In turn your over-all productivity will improve.         

Dopamine is the chemical you release when you have found something you are looking for or you accomplish something you set out to achieve. You achieve the goal, however big or small and you release dopamine. It is the chemical that ensures we complete the tasks we need to in order to survive. 50,000 years ago it meant that we went out looking for food before it was too late. This is why we also release dopamine when we eat.  

Overall, it helps us focus on our goals and keep progressing towards them, because with every step we take towards the goal that constitutes progress we also get a hit of dopamine. It often relates to things that are tangible, or things we can see. If a cave man saw a hog in the distance he would get a surge of dopamine. As he moved closer towards it (progress) he would get more. When he reaches it - target achieved. Another release. This feels good – we are ‘happy’. We want to repeat this activity so we feel happy again. Another great mechanism for survival.

This is why when setting goals they have to be things we can see. This is why people are more motivated to act when someone comes to them and says I want our company to be the North West’s leading provider of HR training for SME companies by 2020. That’s a goal you can see. If you sell £10,000 worth of stock this month you’ll get a £500 bonus. We can see that goal. It’s time bound, we have a visible target and you can easily track progress, whether it’s day by day or week by week. This is why ticking items off the to do list feels so good! We evolved to be visually orientated animals so we act to achieve this, especially (but not exclusively) if it involves the survival of the collective or in this context, the company. Because the survival of the company means everyone in our tribe thrives.     

Dopamine is highly addictive. There are a number of other things that help us release it: Alcohol, Mobile phones and Gambling to name a few! Alcohol and Gambling are already pretty well known, but more recently Mobile Phones have taken centre stage. This is a condition that we have seen worsen over the last 5-6 years, particularly now the smart phone becoming an integral part of our lives. When we get a text/Facebook like/Instagram follower/LinkedIN share etc… – we get a hit of dopamine. As such this has become a societal goal because it mimics a source of public validation. And because we’re social creatures we like this – it makes us feel happy. All the above (unless you work in digital marketing of course) don’t produce anything that is in the interests of survival, it actually means we have become better at getting distracted! It’s no coincidence that levels of ADD and ADHD have risen 66% in the last 10 years. We have developed an inability to get things done in a modern context because the allure of the dopamine hit from a more instant source like scanning your Facebook wall or immediately reading and responding to that text that made you feel happy, simply because you got it. To compound the issue further, it has actually begun to create a condition across society where feelings of inadequacy, depression and low self-esteem have developed as we start comparing our likes/followers and snap-shots of our lives to each-others. Some people have started to judge their self-worth based on their following compared to other people’s rather than any tangible human impact they have on those have formed close (offline!) relationships with. Younger generations have even admitted that they find it hard to form meaningful relationships with people. They struggle with the concept that meaningful relationships take time. Unlike those formed on social media which are instantaneous.    

Another area where dopamine becomes dangerous is in the selfish achievement of golas at others expense because the hit is so alluring. An example used before of the hitting of financial targets was used to demonstrate a visual goal, which is important to stimulate motivation, however we can get addicted to numbers in our companies. We hit our targets, we want more and more so we can feel happy in our accomplishments. In some situations this can produce a situation where people will do anything to get another hit sometimes at the sacrifice of their own resources and relationships. This is a large reason why the bankers caused the financial crisis!

So, when unbalanced, dopamine can actually become a dangerous, and addictive substance when not used in a controlled manner. Survival as an individual is entirely possible in today’s society, more so than 50,000 years ago. But when considering over-all happiness and well-being, we need more than just dopamine and endorphins to feel holistic fulfilment. While endorphins and dopamine will make us happy, they won’t necessarily produce that feeling of fulfilment or trust simply because of how we have evolved.

These are two feelings that would arguably make our workplaces greater and our teams perform better because of the combined effort and cooperation of the collective. This is where the other 2 happiness chemicals come into play: Oxytocin and Serotonin.

In everyone’s life, dangers and threats to your livelihood are a constant, you can’t change these or do anything about them. They simply exist whether you like it or not. 50,000 years ago it may have been an animal, the weather, another tribe – all things that are trying to end your life. The only way to survive was to work together so the human animal needed some incentive to work together. We thus naturally organised ourselves as a collective to face this external danger. It was very much a case of do or die. In a modern context, the danger could be terrorism, other companies trying to put you out of business or the uncertain economy. Again though, these are all things that are threatening your livelihood.

Inside the organisations we work in, the dangers are not a constant. They don’t need to be there. We can choose to create dangers within our organisations. Yet how many times have you gone to work and felt stressed because of someone in your own team? A manager may be taking credit for work you have clearly done, when you know for a fact they wouldn’t return the favour? You aren’t reaching your targets, but does anyone offer to help you or do they just let you fall behind because they want that promotion ahead of you. This is where the role of leaders and managers becomes so important in ensuring collective well-being.  

When we don’t work together and actively strive towards things that are in our own interests, sometimes at the expense of those we work with/who are part of our tribe, we are forced to use our own forces/energy to protect ourselves from both outside forces and each-other as well. That’s energy not invested in the primary function of the tribe/company which is the very thing you rely on to protect you from the external forces that will come whether you like it or not! Serotonin and Oxytocin chemicals are trying to prevent selfish action at the expense of others in your tribe, so as to encourage working as a collective and ensuring a better chance of survival.

Serotonin is the leadership chemical. It is responsible for pride and status. Public recognition is very important in the production of serotonin. This is why we have things like award ceremonies. Serotonin is an infectious chemical – those who are proud of you also get a surge of serotonin when they see that efforts they have put into your development come to fruition in the form of a publicly recognised achievement. It is trying to reinforce the relationship between the giver and receiver in whatever context: parent - child, boss - employee, coach- player, care giver and the one who is grateful for the support they are given. Great coaches are those who have a team that wants to win for them. They want to make the coach proud! We want to make our parents proud! We want to make our managers, employers proud.  

This chemical solved the issue of 100-150 people living in a community: it helped decide who eats first, and who eats last? Survival of the fittest would never be conducive to cooperation. You need trust between individuals, you need to know you’ve got someone’s back so nothing eats them. If we don’t trust who looks out for us, we won’t look out for them. To solve this issue, we evolved into hierarchical animals, arranging ourselves into those with certain talents and status, naturally and alpha will emerge who will be the leader of the tribe. There isn’t a standard for this -  it just depends on the needs of your community. So as the leader or alpha in the community you were rewarded with a hit of serotonin when you fulfil your duty, i.e. when danger threatened you protected.

There is a definite cost of leadership and this is self-interest. You don’t get to do less work when you get more senior you have to do more work in the interest of others. You have to fulfil the responsibility of the alpha! Leaders are supposed to sacrifice themselves for the collective. This is what makes us trust them and work for them. If they fulfil their duty, we don’t mind that they have the cave with the most shelter, the office with the better view, the higher pay-check. We resent these things when we feel they don’t fulfil their role. Leaders are bio-chemically encouraged to fulfil their role with the next chemical in question which is Oxytocin.  

Oxytocin is responsible for producing feelings of love and trust. It is the intense feeling of safety when you feel that someone or the collective has your best interests/survival at heart. A way of generating this feeling is through acts of human generosity, which is defined as giving your time and energy and expecting nothing in return. Time and energy come at a premium because they are an equal and non-redeemable commodity. Time doesn’t go slower or faster for different people based on status, so it is seen as more of a sacrifice. Money doesn’t work in giving us these feelings of trust. This is why dedicating your time to someone you manage at work would mean much more to someone than increasing their salary; in turn feelings of trust would develop between you as you know they are willing to sacrifice some of their time and energy to help you. This is why actual conversation rather than one over email is far more effective. One takes time and energy, the other doesn’t. People inherently appreciate this because of how we have evolved. In turn the person doing the giving/sacrificing gets an oxytocin hit. There’s more though… the great thing about oxytocin is that it is infectious. The person on receiving end has shot of oxytocin. People witnessing those acts of generosity also release oxytocin.

So, in conclusion It is all about the bio-chemistry of our bodies trying to get us to repeat behaviours that are in our best interest – behaviours that ensure the survival, safety and overall feelings of wellbeing within the collective. The chemical builds up in your system meaning the more acts you do, the more you want to do. Better still, oxytocin inhibits addiction, it boosts your immune system, it makes you healthier, it increases our ability to solve problems, and our creativity, and it isn’t addictive. These are the attributes that produce happy, high performing individuals and happy, high performing teams.

Oxytocin takes time to build up though, there is no quick fix. This is why we have to invest ever growing amounts of our time and energy into someone else to build that feeling of trust and belonging between those we are in contact with.

It’s amazing how it all boils down to simple biology! This is where company wide leadership strategy becomes so important in overall wellbeing, because when the company gets to a certain size there isn’t enough time to get around everyone in the organisation and create that bond and that feeling of belonging with everyone, this is where leaders and managers need to encourage others they come into physical contact with to form those same relationships with those that work in their teams. It is trust others to trust and therefore lead. Everyone becomes a leader and protects and looks out for those to the left and to the right of them.  

This creates that knowledge that everyone in the tribe/company is looking out for everyone else. You feel a lot safer and more secure in your work place knowing that everyone has your back. You would feel good about being a part of creating this feeling. You wouldn’t have to unnecessarily expend energy on protecting yourself from other within your tribe. Your organisation/your tribe will put more energy into ensuring the safety of the collective and the it’s continued advancement. Your business is more likely to thrive because your worker are happier, healthier, more able to solve problems efficiently in a more creative manner. It is the responsibility of leadership and management to create this culture of everyone within the company feeling the sense of belonging and trust and ensure it continues.       

Having summarised the four happiness chemicals, this leaves one other chemical that determines workplace wellbeing. CORTISOL. Cortisol produces the feelings of anxiety and panic. Again it is a survival chemical.

 We perceive a threat – it could be a predator, a rival tribe, mother nature. We jumps to attention, our hearts race and our muscles become ready to respond to the apparent need to fight or run. Survival of the collective again kicks in again because cortisol is a contagious chemical! It spreads to those in the immediate vicinity as a warning sign to ensure others get the message to respond accordingly.

Threats evolve. For example in the context of the workplace, a member of the team may come in and say, I hear they’re making company-wide redundancies. Their livelihood is immediately threatened, panic sets in and as a consequence, everyone in the vicinity releases cortisol. Cortisol shuts down secondary functions that in that moment are not required for us to survive. The body shuts down things like growth and our immune system. Acutley, this is not an issue, but sustained levels in our bodies and this shut-down continues.

Cortisol was never intended to be a lingering chemical, it was supposed to be SENSE DANGER – cortisol release – deal with danger – danger passes – out the system – return to normal function.

When a person works somewhere where they don’t feel safe or that feeling of belonging and trust, or where you feel like you have to protect yourself this produces a constant drip of cortisol in response to a perceived ever-present threat. This inhibits the release of oxytocin, meaning we biologically become less empathetic, more self-interested, less able to fight disease which in turn works to perpetuate the situation due to the survival mechanisms of collective panic in the face of danger. Feelings of individual and collective happiness and overall wellbeing understandably suffer greatly. Performance suffers. This situation only serves to reinforce itself making itself worse if nothings is done by means of intervention. It is the responsibility of leadership and management to ensure this situation does not occur.

So to summarise:

-          As Humans we have evolved to survive using bio-chemical mechanisms that help us to do this. The reward for actions that ensure this survival is the release of biochemical that produce generic feelings of happiness.

-          There are selfish chemicals that produce feelings of happiness for the self (Endorphins and Dopamine). These can be addictive however and dangerous when unbalanced.

-          The other two chemicals are Serotonin and Oxytocin. These are the leadership chemicals. Because we have evolved to survive as a collective our body rewards us with feelings of trust and belonging that aren’t addictive or destructive and are released when we act in the best interests of other that are part of our collective. As a by-product they produce a happier, healthier human being and a collective that is more likely to survive.

-          Cortisol is the stress chemical that induces panic and anxiety. It is contagious and spreads to other members of the collective when they witness an incidence of panic or anxiety. A good survival mechanism 50,000 years ago but works against us when in a chronic state of panic because of a non-collaborative workplace culture where we don’t feel safe. It inhibits the release of oxytocin, makes us more self-interested, less empathetic, less creative and will make us ill! It perpetuates the situation it created in the first place.

-          It is the duty of leaders and managers to create the environment of belonging throughout the company so that all members of your tribe/organisation/collective work for each-other and bio-chemically condition themselves and each-other for healthy, happy, high performance.

So when considering good mental health, particularly in the context of the workplace, but even in society as a whole, we cannot underestimate the importance of looking out for each-other and taking time to build meaningful relationships and trust. Protect those to the left and the right of you and not only will you be rewarded with the knowledge that others are more likely to look out for you making you feel safe and like you belong, but you will be bio-chemically rewarded with feelings of fulfilment. By all means achieve your goals, but help others to achieve theirs too.

Not to move shamelessly into a sales pitch, but this plays massively into JCI’s hands! We all work with each-other to achieve a collective goal. We aren’t paid, we just give up our time and our energy for each other to help each other develop as well as giving up our time to help others in the community. In doing so we learn to lead well. In terms of what it has contributed to my mental health, I’d say it has massively created a purpose in my life beyond that of self-interest and has been a major source of enjoyment, through the friends I’ve made, the sense of belonging I feel and the experiences I’ve gained through being a part of this brilliant global organisation.      

[N.B. - Much of the information in this blog is taken from a talk given by a man called Simon Sinek, who is a leadership guru and author of the best-selling business book, ‘Start with Why.’ The talk he gave was about leadership culture and how this affects our bio-chemistry and in turn our team culture and performance. After viewing it I felt compelled to summarise the key points as a means of sharing the key concepts! You can view his talk ‘Leaders Eat Last’ at the following link, I would thoroughly recommend it –]







Posted: May 9, 2017 14:31 by Simon Anderson with .

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