The two experts joining me at this Better Managers Briefing couldn’t be better placed to talk about the long-term leadership impacts of this crisis: Kate Newhouse CMgr CCMI is the chief operating officer of Kooth, an app that specialises in mental health for young people; Jo Owen CMgr CCMI is a serial social entrepreneur, founder of Teach First and a best-selling author whose latest book is all about resilience.
The Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted younger generations and early career professionals – not just in terms of disruption to their education, but also entry into the job market, career prospects and job security, says Kate. “That is compounded with lack of social interaction, restricted access to open spaces and confined living conditions, which disproportionately impacted those in the early stages of their careers,” she says.
One of the most chilling and as-yet unknown impacts is on educational and social inequality, Jo warns: “Children from lower socioeconomic groups have lost six to nine months of education – and all the evidence suggests that once you start off behind, that gap gets wider each year.” The solution requires a three-pronged attack from employers, government and education, both leaders agree. “Alongside Covid-19 is a mental health pandemic that is being ignored,” says Jo. “Once you take that as seriously as Covid-19, you will find solutions.”
Is our education system fit for purpose?
England is scored poorly by the OECD in terms of child wellbeing. With demand for online mental health support and counselling on the rise, new approaches to education are needed amid concerns that the current system isn’t fit for purpose. “[The education system] prepares children for exams but it isn’t preparing them for life – and that it is not good for their mental health,” warns Jo.
By focusing on literacy and numeracy in a world of AI, we will end up with little more than second-rate computers, Jo warns. Instead, we need to double down on ‘soft’ human skills: interpersonal skills, dealing with ambiguity and conflict, leading teams, being creative and finding solutions. These skills are “incredibly important but very difficult to assess in an exam,” Jo says. He suggests a Judo belt system where, rather than pass or fail, levels of competence are recognised as individuals acquire more soft skills.
Mental health and the role of employers
Employers have a role to play not only in preventing workplace conditions that exacerbate mental health issues – such as toxic cultures – but in nurturing a culture where mental health issues are respected. By focusing on sustaining performance at a high level, you can address mental health in a very constructive and positive way, Jo says.
The stigma around mental illness is by no means completely gone, Kate warns: “We need transparency, and leaders talking about it and showing their own vulnerability.” New approaches to leadership and management are also needed. She believes that big changes to working practices – especially mobile working and the move to ‘hybrid’ working models – are an opportunity to raise our game in terms of how we manage people and bring out the best in them.
Covid-19 silver linings
Employers and public health organisations have acknowledged that preventative and proactive mental health is no longer a ‘nice to have’, Kate says, although it remains to be seen whether investment will follow.
“There has been a change in recognising how important and fragile our mental health is without active support and management,” she adds. The power of digital presents opportunities for educators, employers and the younger generation to proactively manage their mental health, but also look at new career pathways, skills and education, bearing in mind that most of the jobs of the future don’t exist today.
The experience of the past few months has also proven how quickly organisations can adapt effectively to change, Kate says.
Leadership in a post-Covid-19 world
Jo believes the pandemic is forcing us to raise our game as leaders and managers. New and difficult management challenges are being thrust upon us. “When you're in the office, leadership and management is relatively easy, informal and ad hoc; you can see who's coasting, who's struggling, who's demotivated, who isn't.” None of that happens remotely, he warns.
“You have to be far more purposeful and deliberate about everything you do; how you communicate, how you motivate, goal-setting, helping staff with their mental health issues...and it'll make us far more effective when we get back into the office,” Jo believes.
The situation has also forced people to understand and be sympathetic to personal circumstances and bring more of our whole selves to work. “That has had a positive impact on promoting authentic leadership and showing one size doesn't fit all,” Kate believes.
The experience may also help us fall back in love with the office as serving an important purpose for creativity, problem-solving and network-building, says Jo. “Perhaps when we're on that commute to the office next time, we will suddenly start to value it rather than hate it.”
Personal leadership lessons
For Kate, the pandemic has served as a wake-up call on the need to focus on more deliberate communication and the challenges thrown up by remote working, in particular how to collaborate effectively and delivering training and on-the-job support. “How do you foster and cultivate diversity and inclusion when you are all working remotely?” Kate asks.
Both agree that there has never been a more important time to have a sense of purpose. “Be really clear about what you want to do in the next year, three months, week or tomorrow night,” says Jo. He advises people to “give yourself a structure and a goal. There's a lot to be gloomy about so, at the end of each day, just write down three things that went well or that you enjoyed.”
If people are finding the current situation difficult, they should remember they are a victim of a difficult situation, Jo says. “Don't suffer alone – leadership is a team sport. Help yourself by helping others.”
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