Joan van den Brink on how leaders can support employees struggling with mental health
The Mental Health Foundation states that good mental health is characterised by a person’s ability to fulfil several key functions and activities, including the ability to learn, feel, express, and manage a range of positive and negative emotions. To be able to form and maintain good relationships with others and to cope with and manage change and uncertainty.
It is also important to distinguish between poor mental health and mental illness. Mental health is about mental wellbeing while mental illnesses are diagnosed conditions that affect a person’s thinking, perceptions, mood and behaviour. So, while we can all suffer from poor mental health, this is different from having a mental illness. For example, experiencing a traumatic event, suffering from discrimination or exclusion, and poor physical health can affect someone’s mental health. Mental illnesses include depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and so on.
It is evident from the above characterisation of mental health that having a mental illness does not prevent individuals from achieving mental health. However, we often think that mental illness is synonymous with poor mental health and often assume individuals with mental illnesses are less able to learn, cope with a range of emotions, build good relationships and deal well with ambiguity and uncertainty. This creates and sustains the stigma that is often associated with mental illness.
It can take a lot of courage to provide this space of safety, particularly for those leaders who have little experience of poor mental health
When individuals are struggling with their mental health, leaders need to provide the conditions in which the person suffering feels able to talk about their issues and get the help they need without feeling judged or penalised. This requires these leaders to show compassion, that is to be alongside someone in their suffering. It can take a lot of courage to provide this space of safety, particularly for those leaders who have little experience of poor mental health. Leaders need to draw on their wisdom (and that of others) to respond in the most appropriate way for the person concerned. Do they need someone to listen? Find a solution? Feel supported? Often leaders will need to also display self-compassion so that they can notice how they are feeling in each moment without judgement, realising they are not alone in their feelings, and to be kind to themselves if they do not always respond as they would like.
To normalise mental health challenges, leaders need to educate themselves and their staff on the differences between mental health and mental illness. This is vital to set the right foundation for providing appropriate support to employees struggling with mental health. There are a range of activities that can enable this including Mental Health Awareness events. There are periods dedicated to Mental Health Awareness at country and global levels, for example World Mental Health Day is 10 October 2022, the US commits the month of May to mental health awareness whilst the UK is holding its Mental Health Awareness Week, 9-15 May 2022. These events act as a catalyst and springboard for organisations to inform the workforce on a range of topics on mental health.
In addition to education, leaders can support their staff to improve their mental health in various ways:
1. Harness their talent. Most organisations have a performance cycle in which leaders set goals with their teams. This is an opportunity to tap into each person’s unique talents rather than simply cascading organisational goals indiscriminately. Leaders should invest time in getting to know each person in their team. What are their passions and joys? What makes them tick? What are their likes/dislikes? Where do they excel? Getting a 3-D view of their team and not just the 2-D person fulfilling a role, will provide a rich tapestry to work with. Allowing individuals to work on assignments that energise them enables them to enhance their mental health.
2. Recognise their value. Related to the first point, concerns people valuing themselves, and feeling valued by others. If the work that individuals are doing is aligned to their motivations and skills, they will feel good about it and see that they are contributing to the organisation’s success. Leaders can reinforce this by recognising their work efforts.
3. Promote healthy lifestyles. Adopting a healthy lifestyle, which includes eating and drinking healthily, exercise, and get enough sleep gives rise to mental health and well-being. Many organisations have wellness programmes that employees can access. In addition, leaders can set an example by role modelling healthy habits, such as, having a 5–10-minute break between meetings, being mindful of out-of-hours requests, particularly when working with multiple time zones, providing healthy snacks at meetings, and so on.
4. Talk about feelings. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it became more visible that, at times, individuals struggled with a range of emotions including anxiety, depression, grief, sadness, languor. Leaders rose to the occasion and instituted extra connection points so that individuals could express their feelings and feel safe doing so. Now that organisations are transitioning to post-pandemic life, it is important to retain the practices that allowed people to speak up and realise they were not alone.
5. Support networks. Employee resource groups (ERGs) that are focused on mental health can provide a sense of community for those individuals who may be struggling with their mental health, and their allies. ERGs provide a safe space for individuals to discuss issues that they face, know that they are not being judged, feel they’re not alone and find ways to cope with their problems. A powerful act that senior leaders can perform is to share their own mental health challenges through talks, videos, storytelling etc. so that employees see that suffering with poor mental health is not a hindrance to success.
Leaders need to provide a safe and supportive environment so that employees can work through episodes of poor mental health and feel accepted for who they are. An important ‘do’ is to recognise that positive mental health can be realised by everyone in the organisation if the leaders act with courage, compassion and wisdom to respond appropriately to the needs of each person.
Dr Joan van den Brink is an executive coach, management consultant and founder of Araba Consulting.