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Supporting Mental Health in the Workplace

Jun 1, 2020 | 11m

Gain Actionable Insights Into:

  • Why the indirect approach for mental health acceptance in the office works best
  • Understanding your team’s needs, balancing out connecting with giving them space
  • Why wearing casuals to a group virtual call isn’t such a bad idea


Mental Health, Now More Than Ever

The COVID-19 pandemic has ignited conversations everywhere, from the state of the global economy to the importance of wellness and mental health. These two issues happen to be quite related – economic downturns can lead to many companies restructuring or even going out of business, which burdens working professionals with high levels of stress. Looking back, even during the Asian Financial Crisis and the 2007-2008 global recession, stories of mental health struggles were aplenty.

However, regular times of uncertainty also present a challenge to our mental health. Suppose the COVID-19 pandemic and its upheaval of life as we knew it never happened. We’d still feel greatly pressured during our evaluation or annual review period. While some leaders are great at offering feedback before such major events, others are not; stress, anxiety and self-doubt would weigh heavy on our minds, without a clear sense of where we stand or how we’ve been performing. Would we make the cut for the next financial year, or would we be the unfortunate ones cut loose? That uncertainty, centred around a fear of becoming financially insecure, has only been amplified with an economic downturn and wide-scale disruption to contend with.

Mental health and many other issues surrounding the workplace have been mostly kept out of sight and left out of conversations in the past. This pandemic has brought everything into sharp focus. When the world embraces its new normal after this turbulence has passed, the importance of mental health in the business landscape must continue to be championed. That way, whether a new crisis emerges or not, companies will be able to take care of their employees’ mental health and cater to their well-being.

You’re not a good leader if you’re too busy to support your team’s mental well-being and understand the issues they’re facing. In your position, your number one priority is to carve out enough time in order to know your people inside-out. If you don’t, how are you going to help them reach their potential? For better or worse, their performance also reflects on you, and their job is not to make you look good. As a leader, your job is to motivate and engage them to do their best, making them look good.

A Safe and Comfortable Environment

Leaders who wish to improve mental health awareness in the workplace should take an indirect approach; your first step should not be to encourage people to come forward and share any possible mental health issues. Just as building a house starts with the foundation, you should first aim to create a safe and inclusive environment for people to disclose. People need to feel empowered and comfortable to share their private and vulnerable concerns, and it’s not something you should pressure them to do. When you actively push for others to discuss their mental wellness and don’t see any responses, you might assume that the entire campaign is not working.

Done this way, the campaign wouldn’t work, because the conditions aren’t right for people to start sharing their mental health concerns. When you create an inclusive space, people will naturally feel welcomed, valued, safe and respected. If people aren’t feeling this way in your environment, then they will be very hesitant to confide in you. How will you be supporting them when they want to speak up? If you can’t answer this, then mental health is probably not something that ranks high on your list of priorities, and your team will walk away with the same impression.

For that reason, giving commitments to mental health support without any concrete steps to back it up will only raise scepticism. If you don’t have a policy in place to support people with mental health difficulties, or well-being initiatives like employee assistance programmes or psychology services, what do you have to offer to the sceptics? When people see that your message and your actions are not aligned, they’ll question the extent of your commitment. In the end, they’ll keep quiet, under the impression that you don’t have a safe environment for disclosure, and nothing will have changed.

Companies that want to make a real impact on mental health support must strongly demonstrate their commitment (for example, with a detailed policy) and make sure they have the evidence to back it up. Your company may not be big enough to afford a range of internal resources, but there are still plenty of external volunteer groups and organisations where you can refer your employees to.

Once you’ve done your homework and explored viable resources for mental health assistance, you need to pay attention to what you’re doing, saying and prioritising as a leader. To create the right conditions for people to feel comfortable in disclosing their concerns, your messaging to them must be very clear. You must also highlight the initiatives that you’ve done and will do, and then show that you’re prioritising them. Lastly, you can’t expect to succeed if you don’t embark on all three actions as a leader – even two out of three won’t cut it. When you have established a safe and inclusive environment with your words, deeds and priorities, others will realise that you’re serious about your mental health advocacy and will be willing to disclose their issues.

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Alisha Fernando

Head of Diversity & Inclusion, APAC




DEI in Practice Psychological Safety