Why addressing mental health is a crucial leadership skill

Addressing mental health in the workplace is no longer a ‘nice to have’.

Research shows people want to talk about their mental health at work, and where they are unable to do so, it can affect their productivity and even make them look for a job somewhere that takes it more seriously.

In our webinar, Workplace Mental Health Unfiltered, Melissa Doman M.A and Mark Simmonds, have a frank conversation with TriggerHub about why addressing mental health is such a crucial skill for leaders and how mental health issues can be best addressed at work. Their answers may surprise you.

Together, they come up with actionable steps leaders can take to confidently manage mental health conversations and support employees in the workplace.

We’ll Cover:

Shifting how leaders understand, listen, communicate and deliver

Enabling people to safely open up about their mental health at work is good for business – leading to a more supportive, more productive workforce. Confidently addressing mental health issues at work is a skillset everyone within the organization needs – but for leaders it’s critical.

Melissa is an organizational psychologist, former clinical mental health therapist, and author of “Yes, You Can Talk About Mental Health at Work. Here’s Why and How To Do It Really Well”. Mark Simmonds is a management trainer and consultant with lived experience of managing anxiety at work, which he details in his book “Beat Stress at Work: How To Balance Your Ambition With Your Anxiety”.

“A study recently came out that your manager can have as much effect on your mental health as your romantic partner,” explains Mark. “So, the more senior the person is that can start [talking about mental health], almost the better.” To encourage employees to open up and be vulnerable though, leaders need to relax any traditional leadership stoicism and role model vulnerability themselves.

“If you could be the person that talks about your [own mental health] in a very open, honest way, that’s going to suddenly create a bit of a waterfall effect for everybody else to say the same kind of thing,” Mark says. Melissa agrees. “It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, people naturally look to people in a leadership position for permission … about what they can and can’t talk about.”

“When I say permission, what I mean by that is, via explicit role modeling, that is it safe to have those conversations. So, leadership role modeling is critical.”

When an employee does open up about their mental health, handling that conversation confidently and providing the right support is another key skill for leaders. It’s something Melissa covers extensively in her book, Yes You Can Talk About Mental Health at Work.

“Support your team members by directing them to the resources that can best help them,” she advises. “There’s a difference between sharing and being supportive, and being a boss-turned-psychologist.”

To check you’re fulfilling your intended role, reflect internally on the following as the conversation unfolds:

  • Is this just an “unloading” conversation with no need for further action?
  • Would it be helpful to build in a general wellbeing check-in during their weekly 1:1?
  • Do they need to discuss changes to workload?
  • Do they need to be connected to company resources or speak to HR?
  • What do next steps look like – can we collaborate on what this means? While you are their boss, and they may look to you for a steer on where to take the conversation next, first put the ball in their court and ask what feels like a useful next step.

“If you could be the person that talks about your own mental health in a very open, honest way, that’s going to suddenly create a bit of a waterfall effect for everybody else to say the same kind of thing.”

“If you could be the person that talks about your own mental health in a very open, honest way, that’s going to suddenly create a bit of a waterfall effect for everybody else to say the same kind of thing.”

“Remember, good helpers ask questions and don’t give advice. And, good helpers enable people to self-manage and make positive decisions to help themselves when possible.

“If for some reason you feel the dynamics of the conversation moving toward therapy territory (e.g. you can feel your team member becoming more dependent on you), a helpful way to navigate this is by letting your team member know that you truly appreciate them being open with you, and that you want to be supportive, but that ultimately you want to make sure they get the type of support that’s actually going to be helpful for them on a deeper level – e.g. the EAP, speaking to a mental health counselor, etc.. Do not make it feel like you’re “cutting them off”, but more just giving a gentle reminder that it would be helpful for them to take advantage of the resources available to them that could help them more than you could as their boss.”

“I look at it as conversational literacy that people need to develop, and I approach it as such… this is a skill we all need to have. It’s a language that we all need some form of fluency. So why not just look at it like that and prioritize it as a skill to develop going forward?”

Toxic positivity: When optimism is too much

Beware of focusing too heavily on ‘positivity’ in discussions and policies – for example bringing your ‘best self’ to work and keeping a positive attitude. While the intentions may be good, the outcome can be anything but positive for those struggling with significant mental health issues.

“To have this unintentional toxic, positivity-laden pressure to come as your ‘best self’ [can sound like], ‘Oh we don’t want to see the rough edges and the negative thoughts and feelings that come with that because it’s too difficult to deal with,” explains Melissa. “Sometimes people just need to turn up as they are and they don’t need to turn up as their ‘best self’ because what if they’re not feeling that way that day?” she says.

Avoiding the toxic positivity trap is a subject Melissa covers in depth in her book, explaining how it can be counterproductive and what the alternatives are. “If your colleague needs to cry or get angry, let them,” she says. “Those are healthy emotions and catharsis – the process of releasing emotions and feeling relief from that process – is healthy. The instinct to comfort and dampen down negative emotions, or even go into toxic positivity mode, may unintentionally kick in and you may say something like, “It’s ok, don’t cry.” What’s actually more helpful is, “It’s ok to be upset. What’s going on?”

“Positivity is a well-intended, encouraged method of coping, but how it lands is anything but that,” she adds. “Imagine if someone has clinical depression, is struggling with addiction, going through a rough patch in their life, or is just having a crap day and just needs to get mad and cry. Now, add pressure on top that they need to be positive and push through it. What does that do to a person? Certainly nothing good. It leads people to deal with any negative emotions quietly on their own, because they’re not part of the “positivity narrative”.

“Sometimes, you are where you are, and you try to be productive despite that.” “The more realistic approach and how we should be integrating the discussions of mental health and mental illness into the fabric of workplace culture is to acknowledge the shades of gray, that mental health conditions arise.”

It’s ok not to be ok at work. And, it’s ok to talk about not being ok at work.

We don’t have to talk about it every day

When we talk about the term ‘mental health’ or ‘mental wellbeing’ it can sometimes feel very abstract.

“I try to make it as concrete as possible, in a way that it feels like it can be grabbed and understood” says Melissa. “We’re not trying to say, ‘Oh, we should be able to talk about every emotion, every feeling to everybody, all the time at work’. That’s not what we’re going for. We’re going for that it’s healthy, it’s normal, to talk about things as and when they come up within the context of the workplace.

“In the context of the workplace I really take it down more towards functioning and interactions. So…how you’re viewing yourself, how you’re interacting with others, how you’re doing your job, how you’re feeling at work and how is that impacted by both internal factors in the workplace and external factors that come with you into the workplace.”

It can also be useful to approach the conversation from an outcome-focused perspective, she says. “So, by supporting someone or bringing something up in the workplace, what do you hope to get from this conversation? What are the outcomes you’re looking for? How are you hoping someone will help you, how are you hoping to help someone else?”

“If we’re going to talk about this at work, let’s make sure something comes from it, so the conversations don’t just fizzle out into the infinite abyss.”

Bring Melissa and Mark to your workplace to speak to your most valuable asset, your people

For lots more tips and advice, you can watch the webinar in full on demand. You can also book Melissa and Mark for individual guest speaker events or purchase their books – which are available for bulk purchase too, we’ve included some more information below.

Melissa’s book “Yes, You Can Talk About Mental Health at Work: Here’s Why…and How To Do it Really Well” contains a wealth of practical information, tips and advice for any employee, manager or leader who wants to understand mental health at a deeper level, and learn how to talk about it really well in the workplace.

In Mark’s book, “Beat Stress at Work: How to Balance your Ambition with Your Anxiety”, he shows how it is possible to be ambitious and successful at work because of, not in spite of, the mental health challenges you may face.

Are you seeking more inspiration to create a mental health impact? Longing for a hub with resources, tools and training? Unlock exclusive access to PartnerHub and transform your mental health support today. Contact us today to book a free demo and take the first step toward transformative workplace change.

Keep Reading

best podcasts for anxiety

12 Best podcasts for anxiety 2024

best mental health podcasts

20 Best mental health podcasts for 2024

The TriggerHub app: Shaping the future of mental wellbeing with lived experience

Exclusive Lived Experience content access including 'Beyond The Red Zone' by BJ Daniels