Leadership’s Role in Mental Health

As mental health awareness starts to unearth in Switzerland’s media industry, it’s essential to talk about leadership and its responsibility regarding mental health issues.

John works hard. He is passionate about his profession. John is very good at what he does, great even. He is competitive, often outperforming others in his team. John drives himself to give ever more, pushes his limits. 

And after a couple of years, John gets a promotion. Now, John is in charge. 

We all know a John. He’s neither the good nor the bad guy in the story. Instead, he’s a character who we maybe even aspire to be. Someone with great passion, dedication, and spirit. Someone who constantly tries to be better in what one does. John is not a problem for a company. Not until he gets promoted, at least. 

Unfortunately, still many businesses promote the best performers to leadership positions without training them in their new roles. Once you’re in charge, your responsibility shifts from tasks to people. And not everyone great at the job is automatically suited to manage a team.

I’ve written this before: A great leader’s most important job is to provide an environment where everyone can be the best version of themselves.

As mental health awareness starts to unearth in Switzerland’s media industry, it’s essential to talk about leadership and its responsibility regarding mental health issues.

A disregarded issue

A few days ago, I attended a panel on mental health by Switzerland’s young journalists’ association. And I once again realised how crucial leadership is to psychological safety and mental wellbeing in a company. 

The media industry doesn’t face more significant challenges than others regarding digitisation. Shrinking advertising revenue thinned the newsroom personnel, distributing the ever-increasing pressure and speed on fewer shoulders. 

However, journalism is not simply a business like retail but should also fulfil a broader role in society. So, the stakes are exceptionally high, making journalism a fascinating case. 

Many disrupting debates are happening around journalism. The reflection in newsrooms (and parts of society) around diversity, inclusion and trust are vital. Actually, these debates should be held in an even broader fashion. 

However, mental health is still mostly disregarded by media companies. The standard narrative: Journalism is a passion, not a profession. You need to really want it. You need to be a John. 

“Young journalists cannot afford to have an opinion.”

Yes, it’s true: Most journalists I know have an almost unnatural passion for their job. And they are undoubtedly aware of the job’s societal significance. “You choose this profession because you burn for it. So you have to be incredibly careful that you don’t get burned out,“ explained Vinzenz Greiner recently in a video statement

Those two aspects drive them to perform, even in circumstances where others might scratch their heads. For example, most newsrooms still don’t have a proper time reporting in place. Unpacking all the structural problems and their interconnections would instantly exceed this post’s limits. 

But one thing stood out to me while attending the mental health panel. Anna Miller, a journalist, author, and positive psychologist, pointed out: “Especially young journalists cannot afford to have an opinion.” And it’s painfully true. The statement pinpoints the intersection of the broader business perspective, company culture and leadership failure that leads to mental health issues. 

The truth is that every year, more young hopefuls seek a way into journalism than there are open positions. Over the last decades, hundreds of jobs have been cut. Aspiring journalists have to go through an arduous length of networking and internships to get a job. And if you belong to the lucky ones, you always know: The line of people waiting to get your position is long. Would you raise concerns? Would you stand up and admit that you’re struggling?

The dire financial situation also leads to relatively mediocre salaries regarding the education level. Meanwhile, the digitised era of information constantly increases production speed and adds more demanding and diverse skill requirements. Moreover, company culture supports expectations of all-time reachability. Now, also throw public distrust into the mix. 

Tell me again: Why on earth do you want to become a journalist?

People are leaving 

Let’s quickly circle back to John, our untrained leader. It’s apparent that he cannot provide a safe environment for people to speak openly. He will likely micromanage because he used to be the best at the tasks. He simply knows better. It’s not John’s fault but the company’s. It needs to provide proper training.

If John had been trained, he would see that he needs to take the first step to create a safe environment. Building a trusting atmosphere requires vulnerability on the leader’s part. And no, that’s not pleasant but a necessary thing. You cannot expect team members to simply step up just because you said they can. They will not.

It’s universally true, not just for journalism. Yet, with the backdrop of everything mentioned above, it’s particularly critical. Many young journalists left the profession in recent years. They are no longer willing to indulge in this toxic environment. They lack perspective.

In some way, that’s also true for me. I work for a media company, yes, but no longer as a journalist. Even friends who work in privileged positions and used to be idealistic as hell now question how long they will stay. It’s simultaneously shocking and understandable.

Although not everyone leaves journalism behind due to severe mental health issues, stressful circumstances are key reasons.

It’s not a weakness

One thing has to be stressed at this point: Raising awareness about mental health does not mean that newsrooms should be fluffy places full of unicorns and sweetness. I don’t know any journalist who’s unwilling to put in extra time for a great story. Nevertheless, there is a difference between eustress and distress; both must be balanced carefully. That’s the leader’s job.

Sharmishta Sivaramakrishnan and Peter Varnum called for a new type of leadership back in 2019, “one in which leaders show strength through embracing vulnerability, and exercise wisdom through creating spaces in which their teams can be psychologically safe, innovative and open about their mental health – if they so choose. “

However, many responses by the Johns in Swiss journalism after the young journalists association raised concerns were revealing. The statements ranged from disbelief to utter mockery. This is, unfortunately, not surprising as mental health issues are still stigmatised, seen by many as weaknesses.

But it’s a devastating verdict for journalism that points out failures in other parts of society yet fails to address its own problems.

While the structural challenges, primarily financial ones, are wicked problems, leaders still play a crucial role in this tragedy. They need to acknowledge that they are responsible for their employees’ wellbeing and not just the bare results. 

Leaders are the first defence line against distress. So, they need to become actively involved in solving (partially, at least) the problems that lead to mental health issues in the workplace.