Dealing with mental health: six things every leader needs to know

If you are a leader of people, chances are at some point in your career you will manage someone battling mental illness, whether you know it or not. Undiscriminating, mental-health issues are prevalent in people from all walks and stages of life. One in five adults experience mental-health problems in any year. Nearly half of the Australian adult population will experience a mental-health difficulty at some point in their lives.

Diminished work performance, morale and engagement, high rates of absenteeism and lost productivity, are common and costly consequences of mental illness for many businesses. Mental disorders are estimated to cost the Australian economy $20 billion a year. Depression alone is reported to cost $12.3 billion a year. Leaders are wise to take steps to nurture the mental health of their team, as well as to address the mental-illness challenges that arise.

Six key things every leader needs to know about influencing mental health are:

  1. People with mental illness can and do work

People with mental illness successfully work across the full spectrum of workplaces and professions. While of course battling illness of any kind can impact progress at times, the world is full of examples of people who have battled mental illness while building successful careers. Some people will disclose their mental illness to their manager and others will not, especially if not actively encouraged by the environment they are working in.

  1. Culture is key

The most powerful influence any leader has on the mental health of their team is through the culture they create. The most important thing you can do is to build a respectful and compassionate culture that inspires people to look after themselves and one another. Make it safe for people to speak openly about mental illness and their overall wellbeing. Create an environment in which people know they can ask for help. Surrounded by colleagues who care, people are much more likely to acknowledge when they are struggling.

  1. Leading by example really does matters

All too often I meet leaders nearing or at the point of burnout, despite being sincere in their desire to create a healthy workplace culture that nurtures the wellbeing of their team. Reflect for a moment on the example you set for your team in the work hours you keep and the time you spend looking after yourself. Have you worked for a leader who said balance and wellbeing mattered, but themselves worked ridiculous hours? What impact did their approach have on other people’s behaviour, including your own?

  1. Education is essential to driving change

Despite growing focus on managing mental health in the workplace, many people remain relatively uneducated about both the signs of mental illness and what to do when they become aware of it. Employers can play a powerful role in lifting awareness and understanding, as well as battling an unfortunately all too common stigma associated with mental illness. Not knowing what to do or feeling ashamed stand in the way of many people getting the help they need.

Give people the information they need to know which steps to take to begin on the road to recovery. Support them to build awareness and understanding, to find the courage, confidence and strength to battle mental illness.

  1. Talking helps

The more hidden mental illness remains, the more people will continue to believe that it is shameful and needs to be concealed. Enable healing by bringing the issue out into the light. Share facts about mental health and illness, encourage people to ask questions and seek the information they need in order to regain or maintain a healthy mind.

  1. Attitude makes all the difference

Supported by an employer who acts with compassion, people are more likely to ask for the help they need. What matters most is the attitude and approach taken. Be willing to make adjustments or accommodate flexible work practices. The steps you take to adjust how someone is expected to work can make a dramatic difference to their ability to hold down their job while getting the help they need. The support you provide could be exactly what they need to survive.


Karen Gately is a leadership and people-management specialist and a founder of RyanGately. Karen works with leaders and HR teams to drive business results through the talent and energy of people. She is the author of The People Manager’s Toolkit: A Practical Guide to Getting the Best from People (Wiley) and The Corporate Dojo: Driving Extraordinary Results Through Spirited People. To find out more, visit www.karengately.com.au or email [email protected]


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