A mentally healthy workplace: The new leadership challenge

Young plant in the morning light on nature background

IT industry leader Nick Mescher looks at changing attitudes to stress and mental health in the working environment – and provides some strategies.

Some time ago, I was the executive sponsor of a cohort attending a leadership program within our organisation. The program was designed to provide skills and frameworks for our emerging talent to be better equipped in dealing with all the challenges of leadership in today’s world. Over dinner, I posed the question, “What do you think are the greatest challenges in leading today’s workforce?”

As expected, the response was thoughtful and intelligent – covering areas such as employee engagement and retention, managing omnipresent change and communication. Whilst I agree that understanding each of these is vital to an individual’s professional maturation from manager to leader, there’s another challenge that I have often pondered over, which has thankfully become more and more visible over time: assuring a mentally healthy workplace.

Back in the twentieth century – doesn’t that sound like a long time ago! – when I started work, the topic simply wasn’t recognised, raised or addressed. You might hear of ‘someone down the corridor’ suffering from depression or stress, but it was rare to have first-hand experience. Back in those days, sufferers usually (and wisely) masked mental illness as physical ailments to avoid the unfortunate stigma attached to ‘mental weakness’ or ‘an inability to cope.’

Counting the cost

Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) has been a major concern for several decades. OHS has, indeed, spawned an entire industry in itself – consultants, trainers, insurers and software systems, not to mention specialist law firms! The regulations (and penalties) are clear, best practices defined, and the financial costs of workplace physical injury well understood.

According to Heads Up, an Australian organisation that supports a mentally healthy workplace, there’s a compelling business case for taking action:

Mental Health Infographic

However, the true cost of mental illness to a business is harder to measure in dollars, as the lost workplace hours of the sufferer due to sick leave is not the only cost. The impact on fellow workmates and managers, customer satisfaction and a variety of other common KPIs that contribute to the mix in the modern workplace are harder to monetise.

Moving in the right direction

Since the turn of the century, attitudes have gradually changed. Many would argue that the pace of life and the constancy and spread of email and social media have all contributed to an increase of mental illness in the workplace. At the same time, as leaders we’ve made our workplaces physically healthier, increased family-friendly flexibility and promoted the value of work/life balance.

But we’ve still got a way to go. The responsibility is now on us to create and maintain a mentally healthy workplace. Especially because mental illness is not as obviously noticeable as physical illness, leaders have a duty to ensure all employees are armed with the knowledge and tools needed to recognise and assist when a workmate needs help.

It starts simply with raising awareness and then formalising an approach for your business to take towards prevention of mental illness amongst your employees. Whilst workplace stress is the most common trigger, others include unreasonable workloads, inflexible old-school approaches to when and where staff work, or not preparing them for the challenges that arise in a client assignment.

‘Return to work’ – a challenge for all

Whilst we are attempting to create a mentally healthy workplace for all, a very real challenge presents itself when an employee is ready to ‘return to work,’ often determined by a local doctor who may not have a real understanding of the pressures involved. In a professional services business such as ours, these pressures are largely manageable whilst they are in our office environment, but can be quickly amplified when the consultant returns to a client site.

As a leader, I am well aware that some engagements (and clients) are tougher than others and require a healthy mind and body to be successful, and our clients naturally assume this of our staff. The nature of the work we do can involve our consultants being called in to implement massive change, juggle priorities (or settle disagreements) between different business units, or evaluate and make judgements on how things have been done in the past by the people they must interact with daily for the duration of the assignment.

Of course our standard contract specifies that our clients must provide a safe workplace for our onsite consultants in an OHS context, such as hard hats on construction sites – but defining (and enforcing) a mentally healthy workplace for them to operate within is a tougher call, particularly as they ‘return to work.’

I believe that resilience is crucial, and that this depends on experience. You need resilience as a leader to be able to deal with difficult situations as they arise. Resilience is also important in a consultant – so my leadership team and I are highly aware that building resilience in our people is critical. Amongst the ways to do this — ensure that they never lose sight of the fact that they are part of a strong and successful team, even when they’re out of our environment, and avoid putting them in situations where they’re out of their depth.

“My health is the most important thing in my life”

The Honourable Jeff Kennett AC

I heard Jeff Kennett tell how, when asked 15 years ago, what was most important in his life he’d naturally answer, “My family”. However, during his tenure as Chairman of Beyondblue, his perspective has changed. He now responds to the same question with: “My health is the most important thing in my life.” He now knows that, without our good health – mental and physical – we’re unable to help others, including our family. The same very much applies to us as leaders.

Leading by example

The increased visibility of organisations, such as Beyondblue, Black Dog Institute and SANE Australia have gone a long way to increase community awareness of mental health. They have also provided the ideal platform for leaders and businesses to address the challenge in a positive way in the workplace.

The leadership challenge actually starts very close to home with you. As a leader, many people will naturally follow your example, so it’s important that the techniques you use to manage your own stress are visible.  Being a strong leader and looking after yourself are critical to ensuring you have the energy and perceptiveness to be a role model and someone with an ear to the ground.

As leaders, we can still do more. It’s great that we can actively promote the services available to our employees and offer our understanding in times of crisis. However, what if we actually looked at prevention and ways to maintain good mental health? I’ve seen some of our teams engage in mindfulness activities – the basic human ability to be fully present in the moment. Others find a quiet space for reflection; some go out and hit the pavement for 10 minutes. Whatever the preferred method; as leaders we should be exploring ways to further positively support the benefits of a healthy mind, before their health deteriorates.

As leaders, maybe we need to look more at prevention and less at the cure.


Nick MescherNick Mescher is Senior Partner, Digital Transformation at DXC. He has 35 years’ professional experience including 20 years of establishing and running IT businesses.

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