Leadership and Mental Wellness

As a psychotherapist, I have always had a passionate interest in mental health and its positive and negative impact on my clients’ personal and professional lives.

My experience in the field has taught me that mental health issues are indiscriminate and can become a serious challenge for any person, irrespective of their status, race, gender and orientation. Mind (the UK Mental Health charity) provides some interesting statistics: one in six employees will have to deal with anxiety, depression or stress in any one year. Mental health studies in the UK have also shown that 50% of all long-term sickness relates to mental health and a Warwick University study found that people are 12% more productive when they are happy and not suffering from mental health issues.

So for the overall health of your organisation, it makes good business sense to explore this issue. So often, policies and procedures take precedence over basic but critical leadership behaviours that are essential in creating an environment where mental health issues may be aired and addressed properly.

In my view as a professional coach, it is not about training managers in psychology or therapy, but about requiring of them to properly engage in a meaningful way with their teams. The role of the manager is to support their team, to provide them with the professional support they may need and to encourage them to engage with the company’s EAP programme if they are experiencing mental health issues. If this is ignored or even addressed too late, the inevitable result is absenteeism. People come into work struggling with these conditions, but the trigger point for action should not be at the point of absence, but rather at the point of the onset of a mental health issue.

Some very simple practices can make a significant difference to how mental health is regarded in the workplace:

The key to success is getting everyone in the business to own this as an issue. It is critical that employees do not feel afraid to discuss or admit to having issues. Having senior people as advocates and promoting early intervention are both critical to making a real and lasting difference. I believe that without this level of buy-in from senior management nothing will change. ‘Behaviour breeds behaviour’ – if senior managers are unwilling to advocate managing mental health, we can hardly expect our team leaders to carry the flag. As a business community, we need to bring the issue of mental health out of the closet. Most mental health issues are responsive to proper medical and psychological interventions. Effective treatments are readily available and the quicker they are sought, the quicker the individual can start to heal. This makes obvious business sense where our highly-trained staff are one of our greatest business assets. The chances are we are not all Wonder Women or Supermen, and it can be challenging to operate at peak performance throughout a forty year career. Life can sometimes throw a curveball at us that can trigger a mental health issue: the death of a child or partner, the ending of a relationship, exposure to prolonged unhealthy stress, bullying, losing your job. No matter how strong we may think we are, we are not immune to emotional trauma.

For me personally, my mental health challenges came as a result of losing my job due to a company restructure. I felt lost, past my ‘sell-by’ date and exceptionally vulnerable. I remember talking about my situation to my friend and former colleague Dermot Maguire  who is the general manager of HR for VHI healthcare. I told him that I had just been made redundant. His reply was quite simple – “you have not been made redundant, your job has been made redundant”. I cannot tell you the positive impact that this simple reframing comment had on my confidence levels. Talking to people within my business network whom I trusted was invaluable in getting me over the hump and I am forever grateful for the support that I received at the lowest point in my career. Since then, I have never looked back. I started my own company and have worked for amazing brands such as Airbnb, Survey Monkey, Voxpro, Nest, Paypal, Nestpick and Slack, travelling all over the world while training their staff.

Professor Ghaemi, an eminent professor of psychiatry, offers us an interesting observation on how prevalent mental health issues are today. He tells us that it is time to dispel the myths of the past and stop stigmatising something that affects one in four people at some point in their lives. Many successful and admirable leaders like Lincoln, Churchill and King all had challenges in relation to mental health issues.According to letters written by his friends, Lincoln was “the most depressed person they had ever seen”. Churchill spoke about his depression and went through a particularly severe period in the years before the First World War. He once said “for two or three years, the light faded from the picture. I did my work. I sat in the House of Commons but a black depression settled on me”. Martin Luther King Jr. suffered several bouts of severe depression and shortly before he was assassinated his team tried to get him psychiatric treatment which he turned down.

As leaders in business, managing our own mental wellbeing and supporting those we lead makes total business and common sense. Yet it is still not common practice. Here are some ideas on mental health to help start the conversations – https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/how-to-mental-health.

It is time to start this important conversation now.