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How can leaders drive improved mental health at work?

Employees don’t experience mental health challenges in isolation. Leaders play a role too – and those who support their employees see more positive health and engagement outcomes.

Research shows that employees who felt supported with their mental health were 26 percent less likely to report at least one symptom of a mental health condition during the pandemic. They were also less likely to underperform and miss work and felt comfortable talking about their mental health at work. This in return positively impacted how they felt about their organisation and leaders, including increased levels of trust and pride.

Raising mental health awareness

Sunday 10th October 2021 marked World Mental Health Day - a global event aiming to raise awareness about mental health conditions. This year's theme, which was set by the World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH), is 'Mental Health in an Unequal World', highlighting the lack of access to mental health services some people may experience because of their background.

It is estimated that there were 246m cases of major depressive disorder and 374m cases of anxiety disorders worldwide in 2020 – that’s 28 percent, and 26 percent higher, than would have been expected had the Covid-19 pandemic not happened. However, one silver lining of the pandemic is the normalisation of mental health challenges at work, with mental health support moving from a nice-to-have to a business imperative. Today there is a greater awareness of the workplace factors that can contribute to poor mental health, as well as heightened urgency around its intersections with diversity, equity, and inclusion.

As managers are often the first line in noticing changes and supporting their direct reports, it’s important that they are equipped with the right skills and tools to navigate mental health at work, have difficult conversations, and create supportive workplaces. Leaders need to move beyond simply saying that they support mental health – they also need to model it so that their team members feel they can set boundaries. These mentally healthy behaviours can for example be no emails after office hours or no meeting days, or even providing longer deadlines to make workloads more manageable.

The workplace of the future

Employees are looking to work at sustainable and mentally healthy workplaces, which requires taking on the real work of culture change. Research shows that more employees are leaving their jobs for mental health reasons, including those caused by workplace factors like overwhelming and unsustainable work. In addition, numerous surveys show that employees want to work at organisations whose cultures support mental health – in fact, it is becoming one of the most-requested benefits in the wake of the pandemic. This is especially true for young workers, with nearly half of Millennials and Generation Z around the world ranking mental health as their first or second priority.

Cultural change requires both a top-down and bottom-up approach to succeed, and workplace mental health is no different. Providing autonomy, setting boundaries, and establishing norms around communications can go a long way toward building a mentally healthy culture. A critical component is providing flexibility and creating a hybrid work setting which supports the needs of employees, in a way that allows them to be productive and mindful of their mental health.

Even in the most uncertain of times, the role of the leader remains the same - to support their team members. That includes supporting their mental health. At Acumen, we pride ourselves in offering development that gives managers practical tools to help solve real-life challenges. We offer an extensive menu of courses, workshops and coaching programmes, ranging from communication skills through to executive leadership development. In most cases, we design the interventions specifically for each client, but we also offer a wide range of off-the-shelf programmes for those who prefer this approach. For more information about our programmes please contact Simon at


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