Leaders, It’s Time To Talk About Mental Health

Research Have Shown That Employees want their Managers To Talk About Mental Health

Andy Chan
Andy Chan
Oct 12, 2019 · 6 min read

Two days ago, on the 10th of October, the world celebrated World Mental Health Day. An initiative by the World Health Organisation, it is observed to call for more awareness and destigmatization.

In recent years, many public figures such as celebrities, actors, athletes and business leaders have come out to talk about their struggles with mental health issues. While being a phenomenal Olympic swimmer, Michael Phelps also struggled with depression. Ryan Reynolds fought anxiety disorder. In the startup world, many founders fight a slew of mental health issues.

While there is rising awareness, the workplace still generally remains as a place where you don’t talk about mental health issues.

When employees are facing mental health issues, productivity is often the first to go. It comes in many different forms: absenteeism, struggling to find momentum, lack of creativity and simply failing to complete work.

Regardless of what form it takes, the statistics are sobering: about 400m workdays are lost every year due to mental health issues in the states. That comes to a lost productivity cost of $33.6bn.

A major bulk of lost productivity comes from millennials and Gen Zers—who will eventually make up a majority of the labor force—as recent studies revealed that 50% of millennials and 75% of Gen Zers left their job due to mental health reasons.

With startling statistics like these, leaders need to step up and begin addressing mental health issues.

Though there is a need for organizations to address mental health issues in the workplace, the root of the problem comes from stigma. On top of societal stigma, workplaces that offer little to no psychological safety are often the biggest culprits in rising mental health problems at work.

With no psychological safety, employees are often unwilling to talk about their mental health issues. Recent studies have shown that 60% of employees are unwilling to talk about their mental health issues with their leaders.

Mental health symptoms aren’t unicorns: they are very common in the workplace. We suffer from prolonged stress that can affect our daily mood. We suffer from anxiety symptoms when we are placed in high-stress environments. Depending on our personality traits and experience, we can face a plethora of mental health symptoms throughout our career journey.

Many understand that such symptoms are problematic in the long run. Yet, companies are still prescribing band-aid solutions. Mental wellness perks and programs are great, but the problem comes from within.

When the problem comes from within, leaders need to tackle it from within as well.

Address The Problem At Its Root—Start Building A Psychologically Safe Culture

In recent years, companies have become enthusiastic about improving their workplace culture. Software tech giant Atlassian revamped their performance reviews to start identifying problematic “superstars”. Uber vowed to clean up its cutthroat culture.

While these are big companies, enhancing workplace culture is not limited to places with more than 10,000 employees. Reality is, every workplace needs to have clearly-defined workplace culture, with psychological safety at its core.

Improving the state of mental health at work is more than an HR issue: creating new HR policies, cookie-cutter solutions and introducing it into leadership programs will not create long-lasting impact.

Instead of relying on HR to create impact across the company, leaders working with their team members in the day-to-day need to spearhead impact.

Changing culture is a top-down process.

Changing culture is a top-down process: it starts with consistent actions and pledges from the CEO, trickling down to the senior management, middle management and finally the entry-level employees.

Companies can start by transforming their leaders into allies.

It is not enough for the middle and junior management to spearhead change; without internalizing the purpose of changing the culture, they have little impetus and/or motivation to start, let alone prolong it.

A pledge from a senior leader can go a long way. For instance, the CEO can start pushing for leaders to address mental health issues. By being the ‘normalizer-in-chief’ conversations about mental health at work, they can start building awareness at the top.

The onus to build a psychologically safe culture lies on the senior leaders for this reason: when they are true and driven in their objective, it permeates throughout the company.

Rather than rely on leadership programs, numerous memos and meaningless meetings, creating an internal motivation such as a mission or value have a larger potential to create impact.

Senior Leaders Need to Show Commitment

It is not enough to simply say “let’s focus on tackling mental health challenges” and call it a day. There needs to be clear push: middle management needs to see that their senior leaders are pod-committed on the mission.

For instance, senior leaders can start changing the culture by having conversations with middle management—mental health symptoms affect everyone in the organizational structure.

Without the senior leaders taking action, no external change can really create an impact.

Invest in Training & Education

Managers and leaders need not be therapists—that’s best left to actual medical professionals. Rather, leaders need to understand what tools they have at their disposal. They also need to be aware of how they can broach difficult topics.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to mental health challenges: different people experience different ranges of emotions. Leaders need to know how they can identify the best approaches and methods to start tackling mental health challenges in an employee.

Leaders need to drive inclusion as well: employees must feel that they are not judged when they speak up about their problems. Without fear of consequences, employees become more comfortable with opening up.

Involve Technology in the Mix

Besides driving the change through workplace training programs, leadership programs, and mental wellness perks, companies can opt to use mental health tools as well. In recent years, mental health startups have been on the rise. Even companies like IBM have also begun research into how technology can help improve mental health at work.

Companies should not shy away from technology. Often, the thought is this: how can a software solve something within a human’s mind?

Rather, it is not about complete reliance. It involves a blend of different approaches to tackle such a complex culture. Leaders can consider using meditation tools, mood trackers, pulse surveys and other forms of mental health services to add to their arsenal of tools they are using to drive change.

Urging companies to tackle mental health problems is almost like beating a dead horse—with more articles, blog posts, keynotes and op-eds about discussing mental health challenges flooding the net, it feels like there is a lack of spotlights on the problem.

In a meritocratic society, mental health problems are often viewed as an obstacle: it is blocking our way to success and we need to solve it as quickly as possible.

Companies need to start changing the way they view mental health problems: it is part of us as human beings and it can be solved.

Hence, it is important that companies start understanding the extant culture in their company. Is it a cutthroat culture? Are people usually bringing each other down? Is it a high-stress environment?

Regardless of how the work is like in the company, building a psychologically safe culture is possible in every industry and subsector.

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