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The role of the leader in supporting employee mental health

The levels of uncertainty we are currently facing economically, personally and professionally, combined with the sudden shift to working from home and being isolated from our social groups, are having a significant impact on employee mental health. Whilst we can adapt to change, a change during a crisis is different and this is not a usual working from home scenario – it is crisis management.

Compassion and acceptance for self and others is an essential leadership skill, and especially in times like these, leaders need to remind themselves and their teams that we cannot change the past, but we can change how we perceive it and how we look to the future.

Keeping the virtual office door open

Communication and looking after your employee mental health should not be outsourced to HR. Now, more than ever, employees need to feel that they can openly discuss any concerns and seek support. By simply asking them how they are and regularly checking in on their wellbeing and work, leaders can create psychological safety for their employees that allows for open conversations about mental health and surrounding challenges. Supportive listening is more valuable than solving the problems or having all the answers, as people want to be heard and feel genuine interest from their managers.

According to a recent research, 40 percent of people at every seniority level of a company have seen a decrease in mental health. This shows that mental health is affecting everyone, and the sooner people understand this, the quicker and better they can support each other. Being vulnerable and open about your own struggles can help to build trust and communicate the message that those who are struggling are not alone.

For mental health conversations to be effective and helpful to your employees, they should be consistent and ongoing. Working from home prevents employees having the opportunities for water cooler conversations that help them to connect with their colleagues and discuss their experiences. These cannot be fully replicated with individuals working from home, but it highlights the importance of regular conversations – both formal and informal.

Taking your mental health temperature

As a leader, you need to address your own mental health struggles to be able to help those around you. Start with your own self-care and do a quick health check on how you are feeling. Yours and your employees’ wellbeing are vital to the business, and mental health should be approached with compassion and honesty.

We are all vulnerable right now and addressing these challenges can help to manage the mental health crisis better. Self-care goes beyond good health habits – it is also about letting go of perfectionism and self-criticism. By practising this, leaders can also enhance their capacity to be empathetic with their employees.

Humans are biologically wired to have a stress response (fight, flight, or freeze) when confronted with volatile environments, unpredictable events, and constant stress. The ability to re-frame a threat into an opportunity for learning and innovation can turn an uncertain situation into one of hope and new possibilities. Stress is not always negative and if framed constructively, it can keep energy levels high even in a crisis environment.

When the future is uncertain, people turn to leaders to get more clarity and hope. They want someone with a positive vision, who is confident about facing the problems, but also admits that they don’t have all the answers. They are also looking for a sense of community and belonging – and that is why keeping that virtual office door open and communicating openly will have a significant impact on employee wellbeing.

At Acumen we have over 21 years of experience in designing and delivering leadership development programmes that give leaders at all levels the practical tools to help solve real life challenges. For more information about our programmes please contact Simon at

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