mental health
January 27, 2022

How your mental attitude can be a blocker or enabler for others at work

By Andy Sutton

During this series on helpful mindsets for leaders to adopt, it’s important that we also consider mental health.

Thank goodness these days there is less taboo about leaders revealing their own struggles with mental health. When done well this can be liberating for their teams and peers. It can give others permission to also share their struggles and what helps them.

Having had the privilege of working for many years with Andy Sutton (who is now General Manager of Data-Driven Transformation for Endeavour Group in Australia) I’m delighted he agreed to share with us. Andy has first-hand experience of both being a very effective analytics leader & facing mental health challenges. He’s shared with us before how a non-data scientist can lead a data science team. I’m confident that his openness in this post will help even more leaders. Over to Andy…

Learning what blocks your confidence, resilience & impact

When Paul asked for contributions on the topic of mentality and attitude I was very unsure I wanted to contribute. Ironically, on the day the email landed, I had been dealing with some fairly intense emotional turbulence, which I’m still processing, and the last thing I wanted to do was write a blog on it. But like all things, the moment passed, I’ve been able to process it, and the learning experience from it is maybe worth sharing.

I’ve had some well documented (amongst friends, family and colleagues at least) brushes with mental health over the last 20 years which have impacted my resilience, confidence and therefore impact in the workplace. Also, as I’ve grown into leading and developing others I’ve also seen how mental attitude can be a blocker or enabler for others too. There were 2 key things early in my career which stood out as blockers.

  1. It’s not just about what you do but how you do it and present yourself. The arrogance of my 20s (Paul will know this well) meant I was convinced, and vocal, that the only thing that mattered was what you did, not how you did it. I was convinced that I just had to be me. Everyone else had to adapt to how I did things.
  2. I also used my mental health challenges as an excuse (or explainer at least). So I’m not resilient – that’s my depression, I’m not confident – that’s my anxiety, I’m not planned and organised – that’s my catastrophising. Until I faced into those things, developed treatment strategies and realised that despite my mental health challenges I could be all the things I wanted to be, I wasn’t able to move on. I’ve now moved from seeing these things exactly for what they were – which were excuses and reasons to not change.

Finding ways to adapt and develop despite those challenges

So what have I done along the way to adapt and develop. Here are three tactics that have helped me:

Tactic 1) Develop resilience

My thoughts on resilience were always that in the perfect organisation you didn’t need to be resilient. People should just be nicer to each other (and agree with me). About 2 years ago I read a book called ‘The Resilience Project‘ which changed my life and showed me you could (and probably should) build your resilience muscle regardless of your circumstances. Practising gratitude, empathy and mindfulness have been shown to help people become resilient even in extraordinarily bad circumstances. I’m in a very privileged position but spent too much time focused on what I didn’t have and striving for more rather than acknowledging where I am today. I was the kind of person who would climb Snowden and then immediately dismiss the achievement to focus on climbing Everest. This links to my 2nd point….

Tactic 2) Set goals and ambitions

One of my strengths identified through ‘Strengths Finder 2.0‘ (another book that changed my life) is my ability to adapt to circumstances, constraints and issues. Put me in front of a fire and I know what to do. Give me the task to plan how to fireproof something and it’s another story. I hated planning. “What’s the point of a plan when it’s out of date by the time you write it?” was a common refrain. I’ve learnt to tolerate it and set myself tangible (if not a little more abstract) ambitions and goals rather than hard and fast targets. In some ways, the move to agile ways of working has helped me here. Having a clear idea of the ultimate place you’re aiming for, an idea of the first few steps you take, and then the permission to work the rest of it out along the way has been a godsend. But I’ve changed too. I now lean into planning rather than just ‘doing‘ – which has the added benefit of being able to celebrate achievements along the way.

Tactic 3) Live a more rounded life

I’ve learnt to balance life in work and life outside work. There’s more to life than a paycheque and a 9 or 10 hour day. Being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes 2 years ago was a wake-up call for me. Refocusing on exercise, eating healthily and spending more time with my family to de-stress have been game-changers in work too. I think I work less but more effectively as when I’m working I’m 100% focused on work. When I’m not at work I’m not stressing about it. It isn’t 100% and my wife would say we still don’t spend enough time together, but it’s moved in the right direction. WFH due to covid has changed the dynamics from a time perspective. But making use of that time has been the unlock for me. Once I got the balance right it became much easier to put challenges and even failures in work into some kind of perspective. The increased mental clarity from exercising and eating healthily definitely helps too.

What would help you as a leader?

I’m writing this and realising that this is very ‘me‘ focused! Please forgive me for the indulgence of talking about my favourite subject (me). I’d suggest ignoring 80% of what’s written above and picking out maybe one thing which is relevant to you. We all have different contexts, backgrounds, thoughts, hopes and dreams. What’s worked for me may well not work for anyone else. My hope is that sharing my experience and my approach helps someone else along the way. I’ve been extremely lucky along the way to work with great leaders who have seen the potential in me despite the gaps I saw in myself and helped me develop.

I’d love to hear other people’s views on mental approach, attitude and resilience. I’m fascinated by the way the human brain works and how people grow in this space. I still struggle with catching myself in the moment and do much better in hindsight. If anyone has any hints and tips on how to be more conscious in the moment then I’d love to hear them.

Many thanks for sharing so openly, Andy. I too would love to hear from our readers. What has helped you stay mentally healthy at work & in life?