Mental Toughness and Mental Health


Imagine you have a warehouse worker who hurt their leg on the weekend. The right thing to do is to show some compassion and give them tasks where they don’t put much weight on the leg.  On the other hand, if a worker reports their legs are tired because they went dancing on the weekend, then normally it’s best to tell them to “Push through it, you’ve got a job to do.” As always, a manager must apply judgment to decide where the line is between showing compassion and being tough.

I think with physical health managers have a pretty good sense for when the health issue should be accommodated and when the person needs to push through. However, when it comes to mental health the problem is more difficult, it’s something we haven’t quite figured out.

It used to be that mental health was largely ignored; a person suffering from clinical depression was told to snap out of it. That was an unkind and unhelpful approach. Now we are at risk of going to the other extreme where any kind of mental discomfort becomes an excuse for not working.

Letting people do a poor job at work for vague mental wellness issues might seem like a compassionate thing to do, but it can be harmful. Someone who learns that any difficulty is an excuse for not performing will never learn to perform. In some situations, the compassionate thing actually is to tell people to snap out of it and get to work. If they develop some mental toughness, then it will help in all areas of their life.

Like so many things in management, this boils down to the fact that we can’t take a simple approach to issues. It’s wrong to always tell people to snap out of it and it’s wrong to accommodate every claim of mental unwellness. We must train managers on how to approach mental wellness issues with sensitivity and good judgment.

Building good judgment about mental wellness

There are several things you can do to help managers develop good judgment on how to handle mental wellness issues.

  • Education about serious mental health issues: We don’t want managers trying to diagnose clinical conditions, but we do want them to be aware of warning signs. For example, they may not know what clinical depression looks like so provide some education so that they know what to look for.
  • Give managers processes for dealing with mental wellness issues: Managers need to know what they should do when they are concerned about an employee’s mental wellness. Give them a process for escalating the issue to people with more expertise.
  • Provide some guidelines on what is and what is not a valid reason for poor performance: Ongoing poor performance can’t be allowed to continue; however, managers need some guidance on how much slack to give people and how much accommodation they are expected to give. Guidelines are never perfect, but managers will appreciate a few rules of thumb and a few examples to help them understand what HR expects.


Too often we hear speeches emphasizing the need for managers to be compassionate towards employees with mental wellness issues. Yes, compassion is needed, but people also need to perform and in some situations, people need to be told they need to show some mental toughness. It’s up to managers to use good judgment on a case-by-case basis and it’s up to HR to provide education and support to help managers handle these difficult situations.



David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research. He has a particular interest in helping HR develop the capability to handle AI issues. If that’s a concern, then get in touch. You can connect to Mr. Creelman on LinkedIn or email him at

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