We have reached a point in the evolution of leadership and organization effectiveness where we understand the importance of the physical health of the people who work in any given organization. We have OSHA standards, promote health habits, and encourage fitness activities. We know that ensuring well-being is not only the ethical thing to do, it also makes good business sense. People are more productive when they are healthy, and are less likely to call in sick.

Some leaders also understand that health and well-being includes mental health. Employees, for example, may have access to counselors and psychologists. They may be encouraged to maintain a workload that is not overwhelming or occasionally take a mental health day.

What is often left out of the conversation, however, is the importance of professional development for enduring mental health.

People need to learn. We need to be challenged mentally and when we’re not, we become cynical, lethargic, complacent, and depressed. Mental acuity and strength comes from pushing ourselves to continuously learn. That’s what effective professional development does. It gets people mentally fit by pushing them into the unfamiliar, sometimes in ways where it may seem difficult to see how it will directly impact how they do their job.

The type of work people do is irrelevant. Everyone should have access to professional development. People whose jobs are inherently mentally challenging still must have ongoing professional development. Growth happens outside our comfort zone. It is essential that they experience learning that disrupts their mindset and allows them to see opportunities and problems in a new light.

For those people who do not have jobs that are particularly mentally challenging, opportunities should be provided that keep them mentally fit. It is cruel to expect human beings to go through a full workday without using their minds. That’s why enlightened leaders won’t get bent out of shape if a custodian uses an organization’s resources to learn Italian. Will learning Italian have a direct impact on how effective she is at performing her job? Yes. Yes, it will. She may not actually use Italian in her duties, but she will be a better critical thinker and have a sharper mind when things inevitably go sideways.

If you want people who are engaged at work, are good problem solvers, and drive the whole organization to be better, then you not only promote professional development, you require it.

Don’t baulk if the subject matter doesn’t seem to align directly with the requirements of the job. Explicit application to current duties is secondary. Innovation comes from a place where no one else is looking. Significant leeway should be given on the subject matter that people can choose from for professional development. Ensure that the content and delivery is of a high quality and let people explore.

Being an effective leader and running an enlightened organization means being proactive not reactive. It means continuously striving to create an environment where people can operate at peak performance. That’s a tall order, but that’s why it’s a group effort and an ongoing challenge.

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