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Last month saw Mental Health Awareness Week take place with several organisations producing helpful resources, news stories and social media content, all designed to shine a spotlight on what has become a serious issue facing workplaces around the world.

From occasional feelings of ill ease and lack of confidence to more long-term issues such as depression or anxiety, more people of working age are reporting struggles with poor mental health than ever before. According to a Samaritans report from 2018[1], the highest suicide rate in the UK is amongst men aged 45-49. The exact stage of life when working life plays a huge part and pressures can start to mount up. Thankfully, the stigma behind admitting to struggling with one’s emotions and mental health is starting to lessen, allowing people to open up and seek help in ways that they would never have considered even a few years ago. While this is a very good thing, leaders need to be ready to react appropriately and know how to help team members and colleagues who come to them for help.

Today’s leaders must not only be proficient in their chosen field and well-equipped with essential business skills. They must also be able to support their people when it comes to issues around mental health. An effective leader needs to gain the trust of those with whom they work and be there for them in good times and in bad.

So, how can they do that?



Be a compassionate leader

Arguably the most important thing you can do as a leader is to listen. Listen to your colleagues in meetings discussing how to move forward on projects, as they may have ideas and suggestions that you have not thought about before. Listen to your clients to ensure that you can deliver their exact requirements and leave them highly satisfied with your work. Above all, listen to your team members, especially if they are expressing their worries or feelings to you, as they may have had to pluck up quite a bit of courage to open up to you. Respond with kindness and tact, being discreet and non-judgemental in your approach. Having high levels of self-esteem is a key part of maintaining robust mental health.

Our self-esteem starts to build in childhood and is developed by the attachments we form with others.[1] This carries on into adulthood and into the workplace and a compassionate leader can make all the difference between continuing to nurture someone’s self-esteem and breaking it down to nothing.

Be a ‘people person’

Gone are the days of distant management sitting in their top-floor offices, looking down on ‘the little people’. Or at least, it should be gone, if not well on the way out. A good leader gets to know his or her people, finding out what makes them tick, how they like to work and, crucially, whether they are struggling with any issues at work or at home, mental health or otherwise. Training yourself to spot the signs of mental health distress in others is also key if you want to be an effective leader, as is knowing how to manage staff concerns, champion others in your team and trusting your team to work well and take their own initiative without you hovering over them at every step.

Such trust needs to be mutual to achieve the best possible working environment, however. If a team is frightened of their manager, or beaten down by a lack of trust this will create a whole raft of problems, not least of which is ‘presenteeism’, or the tendency to work on through sickness, poor health or exhaustion through fear of disappointing ‘the boss’. Work produced under such exacting conditions will not be of a high quality and morale will sink lower and lower. Conversely, an unhappy or stressed-out workforce can also experience higher levels of ‘absenteeism’, or increased incidences of taking time off work. A report by ERS Research and Consultancy discovered that sickness absence costs UK businesses an estimated £29 billion every year[1]. Neither presenteeism nor absenteeism are situations you want to get into as a leader. If you can get the balance right between supporting those with mental health concerns and creating the right workplace culture to encourage people to work to the best of their abilities to get the job done, then you will have reached leadership nirvana.

Be a positive force in the workplace

Finally, positivity tends to breed positivity. The more encouraging you are, the more your team will feed off your energy and raise the bar. That’s not to say you must ignore any feelings of mental health distress in yourself or others – a good leader knows how to address these issues without letting them discourage or overwhelm them. A leader has many powerful tools in their arsenal to help people stay positive at work. These range from motivation and praise and a simple ‘thank you’ at the end of each day to constructive criticism, compassionate performance appraisal techniques and positive mentoring.

Simply put, a good leader spreads positivity around, is a compassionate, discreet listener and acts as a visible, approachable source of guidance and support. They don’t simply sit in a chair issuing orders and presiding over board meetings. They get to know their people, actively seek to enhance the company culture to increase inclusivity, job satisfaction and mutual trust and support. Sounds like a lot to take in? That’s what leadership is all about!

Are you ready for the challenge?

If you would like to learn more about how to expand your mental health awareness as a leader, or are interested in Mental Health First Aid training for your team, please get in touch with Gayle to arrange a no-obligation initial consultation.


[1] Source: https://www.samaritans.org/about-samaritans/research-policy/suicide-facts-and-figures

[2] Source: ‘A Guide to mental health at work: how to help colleagues cope with stress and depression’ by Sir John Thompson, 2019, p 105

[3] Source: https://www.thehrdirector.com/business-news/absence-management/absenteeism-presenteeism-worse/

Post Author: Gayle Young

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