Leaders: it’s time to talk about mental health

July 20, 2021

In this blog, author Emma Vallely from PVL talks about what truly mentally healthy culture means but as well how leaders of organisations can invest in a mentally healthy culture. ‘Mental health’ is here for the long run!

Thank you Emma for sharing this blog with us!

To all leaders and managers, raise your hand if you have ever believed the following as an ultimate truth: “When faced with crisis and challenge, I must put on a brave face, tough it out, and pretend to everyone that I am fine”.

You’re in a leadership position. You manage a team. You are responsible for everything running smoothly. People depend on you. You have to put on a brave face, tough it out. You can’t let them down. You can’t show you’re struggling. You joke about your stress with your colleagues. But you’re fine, honestly, you are!

You recommend to your team that they should join the activities coming up for Mental Health Awareness Week. It will be really helpful for them! You won’t take part yourself, of course. You don’t have time for that stuff. You’re different. You’re a leader. Your mental health isn’t the priority here. Making sure you hit those targets, oversee that project, achieve that goal: that’s your priority.

We all have mental health

A month on from Mental Health Awareness Week, HR informs you that someone in your team has been signed off work with depression. As their manager, you wonder why they didn’t come to you to ask for support. You’re unsure what to do next, what the boundaries are, what to tell the rest of your team. The organisation just delivered a session last month on mental health: didn’t that make a difference?

Here’s the truth of the matter: the one-off, reactive pieces of support for mental health are band-aids, not cures. Awareness days are important, but what we need is consistency. Mental health is something we all have. It's on a spectrum, constantly changing & evolving in the same way that our physical health fluctuates over time. In the past 18 months, we saw the rate of employees struggling with their mental health skyrocket.

You may believe that being at work requires a different persona, a poker-faced version of yourself that you switch on at 9am and off again at 5:30pm. A supportive, mentally healthy culture challenges this belief: it encourages bringing your whole self to work. A truly mentally healthy culture is knowing that you don’t have to pretend to be fine all the time, that talking about your mental health is encouraged, and that this applies to everyone, not only those who are at crisis point.

As a leader, expecting your team to be open about their mental health at work without leading by example yourself is entirely unrealistic. Your team looks up to you and relies on your example to understand what it takes to be a leader. If you believe that toughing it out with a brave face is what leadership requires all the time, your team will follow suit. If leadership won’t talk about mental health, this approach ripples out to the rest of the organisation and tells every employee that it’s unsafe to open up.

What makes a mentally healthy culture?

As leaders of an organisation, you need to invest in a mentally healthy culture, for 365 days a year, to see positive results. As a leader, you may feel lost and confused about where to begin. Leading by example is one of the most powerful ways to create positive change. Talk about your own mental health. Share your challenges, your failures, your learnings. Make the conversation accessible for everyone in the organisation. The start is hard, and it’s messy. It takes vulnerability. Willingness to be a vulnerable leader, a vulnerable team member, to embrace vulnerability as an integral part of your culture. It also takes patience, hard work, emotional intelligence, self awareness & getting pretty uncomfortable in the process.

But if you choose to invest in that proactive approach now, here’s the exciting part: the results one year from now will far exceed the work you put in at the start. Not only does consistency compound, it gets easier over time. Vulnerability brings exponential growth, positivity & creativity to a team. Trust me: I see the results of this investment every day.

Why invest in a mentally healthy culture

Potential future employees are examining your culture before they apply. Current employees are reviewing your organisation’s support offerings on comparison sites. Some of your employees will be struggling with poor mental health at this very moment, unsure where to turn to for support within the organisation and scared that their team may judge them if they ask for help.

Businesses and leaders should not be afraid of this. You have an incredible opportunity to dig into your culture, understand what it really stands for in practice, and make positive changes to support your people.
The idea of mental health applying only to those who are struggling has been perpetuated by years of stigmatising language, by the images of a person, head in hands, in an off-putting shade of blue or grey, in offices, on public transport, online. You can challenge that.

Create uplifting branding around mental health, create opportunities in meetings to discuss mental health free from stigma or judgment. Every organisation can be the rising tide that lifts and sustains mental health for every employee, their families, and their communities. That’s the world I see.

‘Mental health’ is here for the long run

The mental health conversation has significantly progressed and opened up during the past year. This isn’t a phase: the topic will continue to open up long after the challenges of the past 18 months are a distant memory. As organisations, as leaders, looking after your people means investing in a mental health strategy and focusing on long-term solutions. We have to lead by example in building a culture that addresses mental health proactively, ensuring more employees move towards the thriving end of the mental health spectrum and away from the struggling end. That mental health awareness day is over, but your responsibility to keep the conversation going isn’t.

Don't force-feed your people the idea that you have a supportive culture during those awareness days. Spend that energy on creating and sustaining a mentally healthy culture.

Here’s a challenge for you: take your mask off today. Choose to show vulnerability, even if it feels messy and uncomfortable. Especially then.

About the author

Passionate about revolutionizing mental health in the workplace, Emma supports clients to address their challenges and solve their problems, taking a dynamic and human approach to create organisational change.

Emma's drive to address the stigma around mental health originated from her own experience with poor mental health, and has resulted in a wealth of experience and insight, from creating mental health initiatives in corporate environments to exploring mental health stories of individuals whilst working in Uganda.

Emma is a keen hiker and paddleboarder. She is a strong believer of stepping outside of your comfort zone to learn more about yourself.

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