Ajaz Ahmed
Nov 30, 2022

Listening, journalling and meditation: why leaders should work on mental health

AKQA's founder and chief executive writes about several techniques that have given his brain a workout.

Listening, journalling and meditation: why leaders should work on mental health

The era of the invincible, invulnerable chief executive is thankfully over. In many leading organisations today, the warmth of emotional intelligence is as valued as the cold hard facts often found in a culture of analytics. As the champion for all its stakeholders, every CEO is responsible for supporting their employees' mental health and, at the same time, being mindful of their own.

Most people would not think twice about finding the time to benefit from the restorative healing power of going to the gym, where exercise is physical meditation for the body. Over the years, I've relied on several techniques that have given my brain a workout too.

Listening is a healing

One of the most transformative conversations I've had was with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said: "Listening is a healing." This profound statement had two meanings. The first is that the opportunity for a person to share honest thoughts and feelings is calming and reflective for them. And secondly, for the listener, being present in the moment and compassionately paying attention is a form of meditation.

With so many traumatic externalities and a relentlessly bleak news onslaught – from the pandemic to political chaos, from climate catastrophe to the ongoing war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis – in addition to everyday struggles, it can create the conditions for discomfort and destructive thinking. One way to contemplate this is: you don't have to control your thoughts, you just have to stop letting them control you.

At AKQA, we have appointed 220 Mental Health Advocates from within our workforce worldwide who aim to remove any stigma around mental health. This network's role is to listen and signpost to resources that might help with whatever a colleague is experiencing.

Eliminate the distractions

The most important characteristic a leader must demonstrate is respect for everyone on the team. Research shows that being treated with respect is the most critical aspect of the employer relationship. Leaders can set a good example in meetings by paying attention. If you are checking your phone during a meeting, you're checking out of the conversation.

The elephant in the room (or perhaps these days, the elephant on the Zoom) is when the boss is distracted by their phone. You can turn down the volume in your life by simply turning off notifications so you are not continually in a state of high alert. This also changes your relationship with a device, from it controlling your behaviour to you being in charge.

Use expressive writing to nurture yourself

Journalling, or expressive writing, can be a life-transforming practice. Studies demonstrate that when we write about stressful events, we cope better with trauma and strengthen our immune systems. While listening is a healing, there are many people who do not want to talk about how they're feeling.

Expressive writing can be done at any time for as long or as little as a person chooses. It has been proven to have many therapeutic benefits, including reducing anxiety, improving sleep and providing more clarity. Getting started with expressive writing is as easy as answering questions such as the advice you would give your younger self or the problems you are currently dealing with and their potential solutions.

Head closer to inbox zero

While "inbox zero" might be an impossible task, "inbox manageable" is something I can strive for. An email inbox that seems out of control can have the strange effect of physically weighing me down because of its overwhelming cognitive load.

We do our best work when it gets our undivided attention. For me, this means an email inbox with fewer than 20 emails – a challenging goal as we have people in almost every time zone. Phone or video calls are much more productive than a long email thread and certainly more fun.

Meditation – morning and evening

The sense of tranquillity, balance and well-being that meditation provides is well documented. By focusing your attention during meditation, you eliminate the stream of muddled thoughts that may crowd your mind and cause stress. Like any practice, meditation requires patience and commitment. Without regular meditation, at least daily, I start to feel misaligned. There are a variety of meditation techniques available to help achieve inner peace. It's even possible to meditate while reading or walking.

A good organisation is one that leads with meaningful purpose and values that make a positive contribution. A good job is one that uplifts and enriches you and your colleagues. Leaders should aim to provide this in the workplace by practising what they preach and promoting a more respectful, supportive, open and accepting culture where everyone feels valued. Companies should also provide mental-health resources, flexibility and encourage regular breaks to avoid burnout.

Ajaz Ahmed is founder and chief executive of AKQA

Campaign UK

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