Mental health agenda: leading by example from the top

Published by Laura Matthews on

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes


In the past 18 months or so, the topic of mental health has hit the headlines and taken centre stage. Huge efforts have gone into challenging misconceptions about mental health. It’s about supporting people when they most need it, recognising that “it is ok to not be ok.”

Powerful messages around mental health have come from well-respected celebrities and other high profile figures, including members of the Royal Family. They have used their status to talk openly about mental health, including their own struggles. This reminds us that they are normal people who can be affected by life’s ups and downs and experience mental illness just like everyone else.

What happens in our daily lives also extends to the workplace. Our research in 2018 showed that 1 in 4 employees struggle to talk openly about mental health issues, despite 79% of organisations stating they include mental health support in their wellbeing programme.  In our 2018 Why BWell survey we found that there was still a considerable disconnect between employees and senior management. Many employees still attached a stigma to mental illness and management had failed to take the actions needed to change these views.  

For mental health to be a priority and be fully adopted within an organisation it needs active recognition and support from senior management. Employees are more likely to be engaged when senior managers are strong advocates of the help available and can share their own experiences and challenges. This will help tackle the stigma that’s surrounds mental health and reinforce the message that “it is ok not to be ok.”

Below are some points for consideration to help encourage messaging to come from the top down.

Employer commitment to high levels of wellbeing in the workplace is crucial and goes way beyond a duty of care responsibility. Good physical and mental health at work can lead to increased productivity, happiness and being a genuine source of competitive advantage.

In all organisations there should be an effective management and employment standard that ensures employees feel valued and supported. The workplace should be conducive to productivity, whilst promoting good wellbeing and minimising risk to employees. Job design and job roles should be reviewed regularly so they provide meaningful work to the employee, allowing them to create value for the organisation.

There should be robust and effective policies and procedures in place to support employees in times of absence, physical ill health as well as mental illness. These should be reviewed regularly to ensure they remain current and they should be easy to access and understood by all employees, including management.  There should be a robust yet holistic wellbeing strategy that covers a wide range of topics and issues, including mental health.

Senior leaders need to be good advocates and role models when it comes to promoting health and wellbeing in the workplace. If senior management promotes healthy behaviours and good working practices, this will in turn filter down to employees. Simple things such as taking a break or getting away from your desk at lunch, regularly exercising or going for a walk are all good traits which should be encouraged throughout the office environment. Senior management should also take the lead in supporting events such as World Mental Health Day. Such events are most successful when senior management are involved and act as role models.

Culture evolves over time and not overnight. It takes time to change the culture within an organisation.  This starts by creating an open and honest environment when it comes to discussing mental health issues. It involves having trained mental health first aiders who can direct employees to the relevant services available. By simply raising awareness and ensuring managers are well equipped to deal with such issues, employers demonstrate they are taking steps to remove stigma and improve the culture to support mental health in the workplace.

Communication is key when it comes to health and wellbeing, but particularly with regard to mental health. Top down communication of real life scenarios from leaders or senior management about their experiences helps spread the word to the workforce that “it is ok not to be ok.” These real life accounts will help to capture the hearts and minds of employees. It can lead to a “ripple” effect, where people find the courage to talk about their situation, helping to create an open and honest culture.

There needs to be a sense of community within the workforce when it comes to mental health. Well-equipped managers, mental health first aiders and wellbeing champions, can help start building a sense of community within an organisation. Within any workforce it is good to have champions who actively promote the benefits of good health and wellbeing and who feedback the views of employees to senior leadership teams. Clearly defined and regular ongoing communication between the wellbeing champions, HR and senior leadership teams is essential for the building of an effective and ongoing community culture.