Will our post-pandemic leadership prioritise mental health?

OCTOBER 18 — I’ve spent more than 20 years in the corporate world and have lost count of the number of times I’ve seen folks “rage-quit” because they couldn’t stand a superior, or storm out of a meeting, or even break down in tears because they were verbally assaulted for their inability to meet certain standards and so on.

As the Klang Valley enters Phase 4 today, it kind of got me thinking: If we consider the pandemic to be a one and a half-year course in leadership, what has it taught us? 

How can leaders improve in light of a never-before-done national lockdown, in light of tragic brought-in-dead numbers and increased incidents of mental health issues and suicides? 

I’m not talking about mere tactics to deal with mental health cases, but also mindsets and values to ensure such cases never happen as a result of workplace pressure

I mean, has this tragedy of a pandemic meant anything at all to us as leaders and the way we treat people, not least given the fact that World Mental Health Day was barely a week ago?

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Because let’s face it: Malaysian companies don’t handle mental health very well. Many HR managers simply don’t know what to "do" with employees suffering breakdowns, hallucinations, depression and so on. 

Most of the time, if a worker is officially diagnosed with such issues, corporate leadership defaults to the KPI model i.e. if the person can’t meet the KPI (for whatever reason) he or she has to be shown the door (after the obligatory three HR letters, of course).

But perhaps the "new normal" can produce a new focus on people enduring psychological hardships? And I don’t mean to refer to only those with diagnosed problems; even so-called "normal" people should have their mental health prioritised.

What this could mean for our leaders is that we need to STOP talking as if the cosmos will collapse on itself if that report isn’t handed in by Monday. We need to STOP acting as if everyone in the organisation will be blipped away by Thanos unless revenue is increased by 20 per cent this quarter. We need to STOP spinning narratives in which people are deemed as superior or inferior based on how many KPIs they can fulfil.

People are seen wearing protective masks as they walk along the Bukit Bintang shopping area in Kuala Lumpur on October 9, 2021. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
People are seen wearing protective masks as they walk along the Bukit Bintang shopping area in Kuala Lumpur on October 9, 2021. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

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How supremely ironic it was when my workaholic friends were telling me they were afraid of long Covid. Seriously? (grin) Having said that, I don’t entirely blame them. 

I blame those parties and personalities who have been spreading that dangerous narrative of self which equates a person's value entirely with how hard he/she works. This is the kind of crap story which makes a person feel guilty for not checking his email 24/7, for being slow in responding and so on.

I also recall a (anecdotal? fictional?) story about how, in the Mercedes Benz HQ in Germany, the desks would automatically float up after a certain time. This was essentially the signal for all staff to quit working and go home.

Can Malaysian leaders implement something like this, in principle if not in practice? Do we care enough about our staff to (forcibly) tell them to take a break, relax, re-create and continue their work another time?

Accept limits

Closely linked to #1 is this idea that no matter how many pots of gold we’ve succeeded in finding at the end of a hundred rainbows, we must always keep on looking for a bigger pot. It doesn’t matter how many millions we’ve made this year, before the pandemic and/or throughout the pandemic, we simply must do better next year lest we’re labelled failures.

To say that such forms of thinking are unsustainable would be an understatement. Seriously, how much can a company (let alone its people) be pushed and pressured before it breaks?

Corporate folks are always talking about being "radical" and "disruptive" — how come almost no one pushes the radically disruptive idea that maybe organisations should accept a limit to their revenue, serve fewer clients, slow down and just enjoy the fruits of their success without the obsessive need to get more? (In fact, I recall Jerry Maguire suggesting something like this to his sports agency, only to be fired a few days later.)

Again, why is it so hard to learn the biggest lesson of surviving the pandemic i.e. that life is precious and that continual striving for "growth" has a price in the form of taking away our lives?

Folks (especially those who already have a lot of money) who keep chasing for even higher and higher amounts of wealth remind me of a dog chasing a car. What happens if he manages to reach the car? That’s right: Absolutely nothing.

Instead of chasing the damn car, the dog could be spending his time enjoying his mates, enjoying life, enjoying his food, etc. But you know why, no matter how silly it is, dogs continue chasing selected cars? The answer may surprise us but it reflects a lot on people, too: Dogs chase cars because they see other dogs doing so.

That’s it.

With dogs, though, they can’t learn from a pandemic. We can.

We can reflect on having endured a crazy time in which many families and individuals suffered and died. We can think about how we can be better leaders, how we can care more for those under us, how we can ensure we don’t just replace a biological virus with a corporate virus of pressure and tension on people, all for the sake of a bigger percentage.

Let’s not be mutts chasing vehicles just because we see others doing it.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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