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  • Writer's pictureJames Fairview

Why Leaders Need Courage and Confidence to Improve Workplace Mental Health

It’s vital that leaders publicly speak out about their own mental health issues at work. To do so, they'll need to have courage and confidence. Here’s why.

It’s been established that mental health and organisational performance are linked. Poor mental health contributes towards low productivity, high sickness absence and poor employee retention. Good employee mental health has been shown to deliver improved organisational performance. It seems logical that most organisational leaders will wish to strive for good employee mental health.

Getting employees to talk about their mental health so leaders can arrange support is a key part of improving organisational wellbeing. However, half of employees aren’t willing to talk about their own mental health at work and a third will lie to cover it up. A culture of secrecy and lying cannot be attractive to leaders and such a culture can only undermine productivity. Leaders should strive to develop a pro-mental health culture in which employees feel able to talk about their issues openly, which can then lead on to employees and employers working together to minimise, amongst other things, the harmful effects of workplace mental health hazards.

To achieve this aim, leaders can take a big step forward in developing a pro-mental health culture by talking publicly about their own mental health. There is much talk today of lived experience becoming a currency on social media. Bloggers and vloggers share their stories online, gaining followers and likes (as well as criticism) from doing so. And so it should be with leaders. They, too, should leverage the currency that is attached to lived experience by sharing with employees their own stories about their mental health, along with anecdotes about how they themselves have been sup­ported by their employer. Leading by example and engaging employees on a personal, almost intimate level, may prove the most effective of tools when shaping the organisation’s mental health culture. In terms of demonstrating lived experience, leaders will need to possess two qualities: courage and confidence.

Courage, because he or she might feel embarrassed, reticent and awkward when they publicly reveal a mental health issue. This comes partly from the fact that many generations have taught their offspring to put on a brave face, not to be a burden, to keep issues that might hold them back to themselves and to fit in as best they can. It is only natural for leaders to feel apprehensive, given the decades of ‘covering up’ that has preceded them.

Confidence, because revealing a mental health issue at work can lead to demotion, disciplinary action or dismissal, so the leader must feel confident they have the support of those above them (eg. directors, shareholders) and their peers (eg. fellow leaders and managers). If a leader’s superiors and peers do not support them under such circumstances, it will demonstrate intolerance and undermine all efforts to establish a positive mental health culture. This will undermine achieving opti­mum organisational productivity, which in turn may depress the organisation’s financial results. Only a vote in favour of mental health will help the organisation achieve optimum performance.

Just like any other employee with mental health issues, leaders will hold fears about disclosing their mental health issues at work. They will worry about the effect doing so might have upon their career, not just in their current role but across the wider industry or market place in which they work. They’ll worry about becoming stigmatised. They’ll fear rejection, loss of status and loss of income and, perhaps with it, the loss of the ability to support their loved ones.

Most employees with poor mental health will consider talking about it at work a big deal. However, the impact of leaders doing so publicly can be far-reaching as it can inspire employees with poor mental health, giving them the courage and confidence organisational leaders, themselves, must demonstrate.

Leadership example is so often necessary to bring about change. It’s no different with workplace mental health.

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