Do Your Company Leaders Have a Healthy Relationship With Mental Health? - A women sitting in front of computer. Screen says "how do we keep up"

Do Your Company Leaders Have a Healthy Relationship with Mental Health?

Nina Candido
February 9, 2023
February 8, 2023

This blog post was written by Nina Candido, Senior HR Leader. You can see more of their content on the Nivati platform and on the Nivati blog. If you want to learn more about Nivati, click here.

With so much global attention on mental health, and the benefits of making this a priority at work, it’s something of a surprise—and a disappointment—to learn there is a significant disconnect between leader and employee perceptions on this issue. According to SHRM, 96% of CEOs believe their companies are doing enough to address employee mental health needs, but only 69% of employees shared this belief. 

What’s Behind the Disconnect?

The reality is that leaders aren't talking about it, at least not enough. 62% of employees surveyed said they would be more comfortable talking about mental health if leadership was speaking openly about it. 

The long-standing mental health stigma is a big factor in preventing people from talking openly about mental health. The mental health stigma is just as impactful to leaders, and old perceptions can be hard to shake. 

A survey conducted by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) found these reasons for staying quiet:

  • 34% fear it would be interpreted as being uninterested or unwilling to do the job
  • 31% fear being judged “weak”
  • 22% fear it would negatively impact promotion opportunities
  • 22% fear it will go in their file
  • 20% fear being laughed at or not taken seriously

That’s a lot to be afraid of, and fear can be a very powerful motivator. But giving in to those fears by continuing to treat mental health as something taboo and marginalizing people who suffer from mental illness, will only perpetuate the prejudice and discrimination, potentially preventing or delaying people from seeking the treatment they need. 

Why Should This Matter to Leaders? 

1. There is a compelling business case for supporting employee mental health. 

The costs associated with untreated depression, which is the leading cause of short-term disability, are staggering. The Center for Workplace Mental Health’s depression calculator enables employers to estimate the costs based on their unique business attributes (number of employees, industry, geographic region, etc.).

Leaders can play a pivotal role in changing the way mental health is viewed and making it okay to talk about it at work.  Leader's shape and reinforce a company’s culture, which can unfortunately include reinforcing negative stereotypes and stigma. The do this by setting policy, creating company values, and most profoundly, by their day-to-day actions and behaviors.

A company’s leaders clearly communicate what behaviors are acceptable, without saying a single word. Everything they do, or don’t do, demonstrates what’s important and acceptable to them. Values and commitments are negated when leaders’ actions are not aligned with them. When the “wrong behaviors” are rewarded and the “right behaviors” are ignored or dismissed, there’s no ambiguity about what’s expected and accepted. Every employee at the company receives these messages, loud and clear.

If employees are uncomfortable talking about mental health, it’s likely because they have real or perceived fears about some form of negative consequences at work. When employees don’t see and hear their leaders talking openly about it, they conclude it’s not acceptable to the company.

2. A Healthy Relationship with Mental Health Improves Performance

60% of participants in one study said their productivity is impacted by their mental health. Yet employees who are uncomfortable raising mental health concerns at work will often go untreated. Leaders can add to employees’ discomfort when they remain silent on the topic of mental health. 

It’s important to keep in mind that when leaders don’t talk about their experiences, it is likely because they are also uncomfortable with the topic; they are influenced by the same stigma and stereotypes as other employees. It’s possible that the longer a leader has been in the workforce, the more entrenched their belief that talking about mental health at work is taboo may be. 

There are positive outcomes for leaders who can change this view. A Harvard Business Review (HBR) study found that the way leaders respond to stress and anxiety can influence team performance. HBR analyzed how global leaders responded to the stress, anxiety, and emotional challenges faced during the early months of the global pandemic and identified three leadership styles based on their findings and related analyses. 

  1. Heroes: are leaders who worked to convince their teams everything would be ok; they maintained a positive outlook.
  2. Technocrats: are leaders who focused on practical and tactical solutions and results, completely disregarding or dismissing emotions. 
  3. Sharers: are leaders who openly discussed the negative feelings, fears, and stress they were experiencing.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, Sharers—those comfortable talking openly about mental health—proved to be most effective at building high-performing, resilient teams while navigating the challenges of the pandemic. All three leadership styles are discussed in detail in the article.

What Can Leaders Do?

1. Leaders Must Lead the Cultural Revolution

As we know, behaviors and actions send the most powerful message about what is and is not acceptable at work. But this can’t be a “one-and-done” event. When leaders are regularly talking about mental health at work and encouraging others throughout the organization to join in the conversation, the message is clear, and a new norm is established. 

Leading by example makes it safe for employees to talk about mental health and other issues. Openly talking about mental health at work is only one step in creating a new norm. Leaders also need to create a culture of psychological safety and belonging.

2. What is Psychological Safety?

Harvard Business School professor, Amy Cl Edmondston, coined the phrase psychological safety. She defines it as “a shared belief by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” This means an employee can take personal risks—such as speaking up about difficult or sensitive topics—and they won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up.  

Leaders should watch for common signs and symptoms that the culture is not one of psychological safety:

  • Little participation at meetings—employees don’t ask many questions.
  • Executives and managers dominate meeting discussions.
  • Employees are quick to place blame on others when mistakes are made; they fear owning up to mistakes.
  • Teams avoid “hot topics” and difficult conversations. 
  • There are very few disagreements or conflicting viewpoints.
  • Employees don’t ask colleagues for help, and they don’t often support other colleagues outside of their specific roles.
  • Feedback is not sought and is very seldom given. 
  • Employees only know each other professionally.

Leaders should understand what psychological safety is not to prevent misunderstandings and potential inappropriate application of concepts.

  • It is not simply being nice or being comfortable. 
  • It is not a pass from being held accountable for poor performance.
  • It is not over-protecting and shielding employees from reality.
  • It does not mean everyone has a vote in decision-making.
  • It does not automatically grant authority under the guise of empowerment.
  • It is not an expectation of political correctness or a specific political view.  
  • It is not conflict avoidance.

3. Tips to Start Building a Psychologically Safe Culture

Cultural change at an organization is a top-down process. Leaders must lead by example, consistently demonstrating the behaviors, conduct, actions, and practices that clearly reinforce expectations of a psychologically safe environment. Below are some steps leaders can take to build a culture of psychological safety:

  • Demonstrate psychological safety is a priority by talking about it, defining behavioral expectations, and modeling behaviors.
  • Ensure everyone speaks up and listen with an open mind, especially when new or unpopular views are raised. 
  • Redefine mistakes as learning opportunities.
  • Encourage everyone to put forth new ideas—this is the foundation of innovation.
  • Promote constructive conflict that encourages respectful exploration of different viewpoints.
  • Engage in open, respectful communication.

The journey to employee mental health and wellbeing starts with leaders talking about mental health in a psychologically safe environment.

Additional Reading:

Guide to Diverse Communities and Psychological Safety at Work

How to Talk About Mental Health in the Workplace

Mental health symptoms? Yes. Comfortable discussing them at work? No

Why We Must Talk Openly About Mental Health

4 Questions for CEOs and CHROs to Consider

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Nina Candido
Nina Candido
Nina Candido is a Sr. HR Leader with success working to achieve transformative outcomes in organizations experiencing rapid growth or M&A activity. She is a builder focused on unlocking individual and organizational potential and is passionate about creating environments where employees can thrive and grow beyond their own highest expectations.