Mental health, wellbeing and leadership – an opinion piece by Steve Coole

Awareness levels around mental health and wellbeing have never been higher.  But it feels like we are still quite far away from achieving a common understanding about what creates a consistent healthy workplace and society.

This is probably because achieving utopia and the healthy culture that we all say we want, involves addressing things we can’t necessarily see or touch.

When presented with a problem or a crisis it is human nature to do one of three things:

  1. Try to find a solution, intervene, or do something to fix it
  2. Ignore it, dismiss it and/or pretend the problem is not real
  3. Do nothing, stand still in the headlights and lose hope of the problem ever being ‘fixed’

Through lived and work experience, I have observed these three behaviours from individuals and organisations in response to the mental health crisis.

From tangible interventions such as mental health first aid training, ‘liking’ a hash tag on social media, resilience training, developing new policies and practices, to those who make comments such as “it’s just every day stress that everyone experiences and is good for performance”; “we need to stop medicalising mental health, the NHS is under enough pressure as it is”; and “mental health was never an issue in my day”, the subject still causes a debate in society.

This suggests someone thinks they have the answer or deny that there is a problem at all.

Then there are those who do nothing, become consumed, lose hope, and in the worst cases, die from this terrible illness.

Why do people ignore mental health and wellbeing at work?

I like to believe, and hope that the intentions of people who align with point one are good. That they act because that they want to do the right thing but are not sure where to start. I like to believe they act because they want to, and not because they feel they need to be seen to be doing something.

With the latter, this can become apparent when people and leaders don’t practice what they preach. Sometimes they don’t practice what they preach because they are incompetent, which can have a negative impact on someone else’s mental health.

Even worse, there can be times when incompetence and being unpleasant to somebody inflames things even further and can have a huge impact on the person who is on the receiving end of their behaviour.

Am I saying we just need to be nice to each other?

Maybe. Or, maybe I’m saying that incompetence is not someone’s fault, and it can be addressed through support, learning and development – the challenge is to be honest with yourself, and learn to recognise how you can improve your self-awareness. 

Taking personal responsibility for creating a supportive environment

However, the way we behave towards each other is a personal responsibility. You own it, and only you have the power to change it.

It’s not about being liked or being seen to be a soft touch, it’s about finding a way to genuinely deliver an organisation’s cultural expectations and values through your own behaviour.  In a way that is authentic to you, but doesn’t come at the expense of other people’s emotional and physical wellbeing.

What you say and what you do will always impact people, you just need to decide what impact you want to have and why. And that involves that old saying: ‘think before you speak’.

Dealing with mental health and wellbeing

Interventions can help and are important — particularly from an educational and learning point of view — but we should never expect the intervention to be the action that ticks a box or fixes everything.

To those who sit within point two, every human reaction is unique to that person and everyday stress doesn’t sit in a silo or a box on its own. Yes, everyone has their own circumstances to deal with but ‘dealing with it’ will mean different things to different people in how they go about it.

Speaking bluntly, I am of the belief that if something is happening internally within your body (which includes your head) that can cause a person to die, harm themselves or lose their sense of balance and/or control then how can it not be a medical condition?

If the medical profession has articulated different conditions and diagnoses, and subscribed medication to treat mental health illnesses, who are we to argue?

If you feel that mental health is a ‘trend’, or ‘not spoken about ‘in my day’, take a moment to consider — perhaps mental health was not recognised as an issue, but people still suffered.

What does mental health have to do with leadership?

For me, leadership has everything to do with mental health and wellbeing. I’m not talking about traditional, positional or interventional leadership. I’m talking about shifting the focus of what we mean by leadership to ‘how we do’ rather than ‘what we do’.

The ‘why we do’ things are always present, as this informs our motivations and behaviours through our values and beliefs, but beliefs can be changed so long as you are willing to listen, learn and adapt.

Everyone is a leader, you don’t need to climb a career ladder, gain a certain status or a badge to say you are a leader.

You ‘lead’ your life every day and this will involve decisions and choices about the things you believe in, care about, work for and enjoy – things that more often than not will bring you into contact with other people.

When encountering other people, we always have a choice about how we are going to speak, act and generally be with them, it is likely that their response to you will reflect your approach, or at least grow to be similar over time.

Creating the right culture to talk about mental health is everyone’s responsibility

Imagine if we could all approach ‘day to day stress’ with positive people around us, who are supportive, understanding and generous with their time. Our work culture would be better, right?

Creating the right culture is everyone’s responsibility, not just the leader or a manager in an organisation. They can’t control how you behave but they can lead by example and demonstrate the behaviours they expect to receive in return from their colleagues.

It sounds simple, but how often do we see negativity, judgement and assumption in the world and more specifically in the workplace?

When you break it down it always comes back to something someone has done, said or chosen to do that triggers a reaction. A reaction that often reflects the person’s feelings towards the initial incident then means that the negativity is allowed to breed, grow and start infecting others.

Bad things happen, and there will always be a human response to these things, so moving forward what will your response be? How will you choose to react?

Perhaps this is where more traditional leadership traits come into play such as ownership, openness, responsibility, supportiveness and selflessness.

Keep on doing the interventions, take ownership and responsibility for your own wellbeing and mental health, because life can throw you curveballs which can compound what people might consider ‘day to day’ stress.

Finally, be supportive, selfless and generous with others and be open to the idea that you are not there to judge, decide or intervene on their behalf. Offer empathy, try to empower, suspend disbelief and try to hold back any urges to ‘fix it’ for them.

We all need to find our own way but finding that way can be made so much easier if we have positive people around us — for example, you.

We all have a responsibility to each other as human beings, how seriously will you take yours?

About the author:
Steve Coole is the former Director of NUS Wales and founder of Coole Insight Ltd. Steve has a depth of experience in supporting organisations, trustee boards and senior management teams to effectively review and develop their organisational culture, strategy and impact.

Steve has spent his entire career fighting for social justice, with a focus on empowering young people to create change and take ownership of their future and the world they want to live in.