3 Approaches to Workplace Mental Health and the One All Leaders Should Consider

 In Blog

During my 10-month tour of duty in Rwanda in 1994, Chris, a member of my team, shared that he had been stopped and held at gunpoint by Rwandan Patriotic Army soldiers.

“While relating the story, Chris’s face grew quite red: he was clearly disturbed by what he had experienced. John and I listened, but we were at a loss for things to say. We weren’t trained in how to handle those types of events, nor did I really understand the effects of any of this on myself or others. By that point, I’d seen countless horrific things and had several brushes with death – I assumed Chris’s experience amounted to just another bad day at the office.”

After the War: Surviving PTSD and Changing Mental Health Culture

At that moment, I did not lean forward. Instead, I told him I was happy he had survived and moved on. I realize now that I was not demonstrating courageous compassion as a leader. As a junior leader back in 1994, I could have supported Chris considerably better.

The key for all of us is to notice when this happens and do something about it.

At that time, very few of us knew about mental health as it was never discussed. I really wish I had known then what I know now and had been equipped with the ability to recognize when a colleague was having a hard time and to engage with them in a person-to-person manner.

“I would have followed up with Chris and asked him how he was doing. That would have then given him the opportunity to talk about how he was feeling if he wanted to. Even if he struggled with things down the road, I could have connected with him and let him know he didn’t have to face the harrowing event in his own head, alone.”

After the War: Surviving PTSD and Changing Mental Health Culture

Today, with so much focus on mental health, leaders have the opportunity to lean forward and help people develop the skills necessary to recognize and support a peer in distress by harnessing the power of human interaction. An interaction I wish I would have had with Chris.

During my 22-year career in mental health, I have had the opportunity to speak with hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals passionate about making a positive impact on the lives of those who work within their organizations or for whom they provide care.  Many of these individuals are executive leaders who run successful companies and genuinely care about their people. They are doing the things they know to provide access to mental health support. They feel like they’ve got their people covered—until they don’t.

The pandemic has posed an incredible challenge for many of these individuals, who have had to learn to navigate a rapidly changing situation while managing and supporting the needs of many employees in virtual or hybrid work environments.  All the more reason for leaders to assess current workplace approaches to mental health and consider the one that actually makes a difference in the lives of your people and the success of your organization.  

I have found that leaders and their organizations typically fall into one of what I refer to as the “three buckets” of ways to address workplace mental health.


Although increasing awareness is unquestionably a good thing, I have not come across any hard evidence that indicates only talking about mental health via things such as lunch and learns, giving away bracelets with inspirational quotes, and other perks and awards diminishes the likelihood of a person being in distress and needing support. While these gestures are well-intentioned, and while we do believe that the conversation around mental health and wellbeing needs to be present and ongoing, awareness alone can in some cases lean towards a culture of toxic positivity that leaves individuals who are struggling to feel invalidated, unseen and unheard. Talking about mental health is important, and this needs to be coupled with tangible action and support.


I am always the first to emphasize the significance of clinicians and the service they provide to patients. However, bringing a clinical approach into the workplace, whether it be through a professional referencing academia and statistics, or a training program that is focussed on symptoms and diagnostics, can leave a person experiencing a mental health challenge feeling overwhelmed, and confused. While we do believe that offering clinical support to individuals who are struggling is important, and in some cases crucial, many clinical support services provided rely on the person who is struggling to be the one to take action. Yet, evidence shows that when someone is struggling, they are less likely to reach out for support on their own.


Leaders who participate in the mental health conversation, drive change and support their people find themselves in this third “bucket”. They model simple, caring behaviours and walk the talk of being authentic and vulnerable. Their executive team (and therefore the whole organization) thinks about mental health as an opportunity rather than a problem that can only be addressed by clinicians. Their employees are encouraged to recognize signs of distress in themselves and others and to take action to reach out to support one another. They crowdsource natural human benevolence, implementing a workplace peer support program that leverages the lived experience of individuals who can be trained to provide support to their peers. Besides genuine empathy, a peer supporter can promote treatment through personal empowerment and become a role model for recovery. Even if peers don’t share the same mental health experiences, that connection holds great value. People can start to feel better simply by knowing they are not alone and that others also understand what they are going through.

To those leaders who find themselves exclusively in one of the two first “buckets”, I encourage you to consider thinking about rehumanizing your workplace mental health approach. I am suggesting a paradigm shift from viewing mental health issues as a liability, to viewing them as a force multiplier.

What does a paradigm shift in organizational culture entail? Listen to this meaningful conversation between MHI Partner Leslie Bennett and I to find out.

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