HR LeadersTalk: Leading the Mental Health Conversation at Work


There may be no tougher—or more worthwhile—discussion for a leader to initiate in the workplace.

Destination Mental Health
As CEO of Destination BC, a crown corporation that promotes British Columbia as a tourist destination, Marsha Walden knows how hard it is to talk about mental health issues. Growing up as a teenager with a schizophrenic mother was one of the life experiences that shaped her view of the world.

At a recent company meeting, Walden opted to share this background with her team, making the point that when mental illness touches a person (or family’s) life it can be both a story of struggle and one of resilience. Her goal was to open up the conversation about mental illness in her organization to diminish the stigma, and to help people be better equipped to ask for support, and support those in need.

A Matter Beyond Wellbeing
Sven Freybe, President and CEO at Freybe Gourmet Foods, also believes it is the role of the CEO to initiate the conversation about mental health in the workplace. He believes that there is value in separating a discussion about mental health from a more generalized conversation about wellbeing.

“A conversation about mental health is different from a discussion about getting a gym membership, although fitness can benefit mental health. My view is that there is a risk when CEOs put mental health in the same bucket as physical health,” says Freybe. “The reality is there is as much diversity in mental health issues—types of issues and severity—as there are physical ailments. The message can get lost if too many ‘health issues’ are in the same bucket.”

Building Internal Champions
At Freybe, they have opted to create a sense of openness around this topic by proactively educating team members about mental health issues. They found that when team members lives are touched by mental health issues it weighs heavily on them.

“We have assigned a mental health champion in our business. This is someone who is interested to learn more about the topic, and has become tasked with educating themselves and others on mental health as part of their formal development plan. This person will attend workshops and seminars and they proactively share and education others in the business,” Frebye says. “It’s a win-win because they are passionate to learn more and every time they share their knowledge it is a reminder how fortunate we all are when we are healthy, and how meaningful it is to provide a workplace that supports staff during times of stress and struggle.”

Important Shift of Consciousness
Walden points out that mental health issues have been prevalent in the workplace for decades, and wonders if there are truly more mental health issues now or whether there is a better spotlight on them in this era. She believes consciousness around mental health in the workplace has increased and that it is the CEOs role to continue to keep these conversations going.

“The media often sensationalizes mental health incidents for the shock and awe factor, but in reality, people all around you are dealing with mental health issues in ways that hit closer to home: depression, addictions, relationship struggles, anxiety, etc,” Walden says.

She recommends that CEOs have conversations about mental health in their workplace to shed light on the topic and reduce the stigma, understand how their organization can better support employees and how to accommodate people who self-identify with mental health issues.

‘Hughes’ Your Role to Start the Talk
Walden encourages leaders to stand up and tell their story as a way to invite more conversation, acknowledging Clara Hughes, a six-time Olympic medalist in cycling and speed skating as an excellent role model in this regard. The only athlete in history to win multiple medals in both Summer and Winter Games, Hughes used her profile as an athlete to help break down the stigma associated with mental illness, becoming a spokesperson for Bell Canada’s Mental Health initiative and the high-profile ‘Let’s Talk’ campaign, sharing her past struggles with depression.

Walden and Freybe recognize the challenge as much as they know the value of those experiences being shared in the workplace. As such, they invite the broader community of leaders to consider the following. Are you initiating a conversation about mental health in your organization? Are you creating the culture where such conversations can take place? Most importantly, are you proactively educating team members and offering support?

In their view, this is an opportunity for CEOs to lead by example and affect real change within their organization around the many aspects of mental health.

Natalie Michael, CPHR is a CEO and Executive Coach with Waterfront Partners. She is also the author of The Duck and The Butterfly: Coaching Questions for Leaders at Work and the co-author of Your CEO Succession Playbook: How to Pass the Torch so Everyone Wins.

(PeopleTalk Spring 2018)

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