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Effective leadership means leading for mental health in the workplace

In this blog, Speakers Collective member Keith Leslie shares his thoughts on mental health.

Keith Leslie Chair of Samaritans UK & Ireland

There isn’t a day when mental health isn’t in the news. Leaders in business, public services and charities are all talking about it – either their own mental health, or what their organisation is doing in mental health, or how we need a different approach to sustained mental health.


I know from talking to leaders in every sector that, behind the calm assurance in public, many are bemused about this new focus on mental health.


  • Some are trying to analyse their way through – “Are you a neuro-science advocate or a well-being advocate?”

  • Some are concerned about the potential impact on organisational performance – “Am I risking my people’s health or am I letting them off the hook?”

  • Many wonder what they should do – “Are you telling me I need to become a therapist?”

When I began working with mental health charities 15 years ago, I wondered about the same issues and I was uncertain what I could do in my workplace. Now it’s my privilege to chair the board of Samaritans in UK & Ireland and I give many talks emphasising practical answers for leaders in workplaces.


“What do I need to understand about mental health?”

There are many different mental illnesses but the ‘big ones’ that we all come across are depression and anxiety – they account for 90+%.


As a leader in the workplace, this is what you need to prepare for – as a manager with frequently-unwell people … and as a potentially-unwell person yourself.


We have learned lots new about mental and brain health over the last 30 years. The most important learning is that we moved away from thinking that mental illness was largely a matter of genes and chemistry – they matter, yes, but less than we thought. The most important factors are environment and experience. People are very excited about advances in neuro-science but I fear that excitement is often about looking for a ‘magic pill’ or treatment that avoids the hard work.


Now, if depression and anxiety are predominantly driven by environmental factors and experiences, then any of us can suffer depression or anxiety. But individuals from backgrounds deprived of positive experiences and environments will suffer a higher incidence – and statistics support this. Leaders need to see that this can happen at any level:

  • At a national level, people on the margins of society – and notably those in poor housing – are more likely to suffer poorer mental health.

  • At an organisation level, people in tough roles – or with tough-line managers – who are subject to excess stress will suffer poorer mental health.

  • At an individual level, having open conversations – with an open-minded manager at the right moment – can make all the difference to motivation and resilience,

"How do I build organisational performance and resilience?"

It takes leadership at all levels to deliver organisational performance, change and resilience – everyone who is a supervisor or manager of people has to work hard.


When I mentioned ‘the hard work’, I meant it is about having the right conversations with the right people:


  • Demonstrating empathy. When leaders talk about their own mental health issues, it allows others to talk too.

  • Building long-term organisational health and resilience. When leaders role-model proper resourcing of business plans, it allows others to challenge and improve too.

  • Coaching individuals. When leaders listen and talk through why and how someone is experiencing or anticipating a difficult time, it allows their people to take responsibility for working through their own issues.

“What is my personal role as a leader in my organisation?”

No – you do not need to become or pretend to be a therapist. You do need to be an effective leader of people. You do not need clinical skills because, in the unlikely event you have to deal with a member of staff with a less common mental illness, then they do need to see a doctor rather than you.


Every line manager needs to be trained appropriately in basic leadership skills in talking and allying with your people. It’s nothing scary, it’s common sense and practical – and probably ends up being practised on a daily basis.


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So, when you notice mental health in the news or hear a senior leader talking about their experience or their organisation’s mental health programme, focus on the basics of leading your people effectively and – if you’re unclear on your role – press for training as a people leader in how to talk with your people when they come to you, worried or anxious.


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About Keith Leslie & the Speakers Collective Keith Leslie is a member of the Speakers Collective, Chair of Samaritans in the UK & Ireland, Chair of Mental Health At Work CIC, a trustee at St Martin's-in-the-Fields and St Paul's Cathedral and a Fellow of Windsor Leadership.


The Speakers Collective is a Social Enterprise. We work together with a shared commitment to challenge stigma, facilitate important conversations and promote learning on a variety of social issues. Please do contact us via info@speakerscollective.org or call 020 8123 8250 with any enquiries.

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