INSEAD

Mental Health Awareness is a Leadership Skill

leadership and mental health

Mental health awareness is something that many executives overlook, but it’s actually a vital leadership skill that is necessary for the long-term success of any organization. As a leader, it’s critical that you have an intimate understanding of your team and an overall sensitivity to their well-being. A team cannot work together effectively if any of the team members are struggling with personal challenges that seep into their work-life without receiving any support. In addition, companies have a responsibility to their staff to ensure that they are providing a positive livelihood for their employees and that their work isn’t causing mental or physical harm.

This article will share some useful advice for leaders to help increase mental health awareness and provide some tips on how to appropriately handle mental health situations in the workplace.

How Can You Identify Mental Health Challenges?

Here are a few signals you should be aware of:

  • Withdrawing from other people
  • Losing interest in activities that previously seemed to be enjoyable
  • Deterioration in work output, motivation level, and focus
  • Difficulties in making decisions or finding solutions to problems
  • Significant changes in mood, energy, or eating habits
  • Substance abuse

The earlier you can detect a potential problem, the easier and more effective a proposed solution will be.

Practice listening and asking questions.

As noted in a recent article by INSEAD Executive Master in Change (EMC) alum John Young, listening and asking questions is another opportunity for leaders to connect with their teams and gain a sense of their mental state. Mental health is rarely surface-level and it takes a good listener and thoughtful questions to truly understand how someone is feeling.

Questions can help by encouraging more open communication, as well as by providing a platform for team members to share their thoughts. Open-ended questions are particularly effective for generating such conversations, while active listening is just as important in building a transparent, safe and supportive culture in your team.

Tips for supporting colleagues facing challenges

An empathetic, reassuring conversation along with offering support can go a long way. Are there some tasks or projects that can temporarily be de-prioritized or delegated elsewhere, to allow your team member space to recharge and recover? Sharing your own struggles and providing some perspective on the importance of mental wellbeing can help to normalize the situation and reduce leading a team embarrassment or shame.

For more significant challenges, Manfred Kets de Vries, INSEAD Distinguished Clinical Professor of Leadership Development and Organizational Change, notes that the best support you can provide is to help team members seek out qualified psychological and medical care, and to remind your colleague that seeking help is in fact a sign of strength, not of weakness.

While the circumstances of each case will be unique, Kets de Vries suggests that developing a plan for team members to stay at work may be more effective than suggesting a leave of absence, as having a sense of contribution is beneficial to recovery.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Mental Health

The COVID-19 pandemic has had wide-spread impacts on global health and safety, as well as business and society. Many people are experiencing heightened levels of stress, and leaders may be in a position where they might have to manage projects and teams while grappling with personal impacts simultaneously.

Declan Fitzsimons, INSEAD Professor and Faculty on the Executive Master in Change (EMC) program suggests that when it comes to leading during a crisis, your first question should be “How am I responding to this?” followed by “How do I need to show up differently” and only then “What should I actually do?”. Managing your own resources and cultivating your own resilience and flexibility are key to leading others effectively in a crisis. “If I’m not aware of my own emotional life, I have less chance of being able to see and notice the weak signals that tell me that my colleague is in trouble.”

Fitzsimons also encourages leaders to deeply connect with an ethos of learning. “How that links to leadership is, I’m the lead learner in the room. I don’t know [more] than everyone in the room, I’m surrounded by experts who know what they’re doing in their areas. I can’t possibly know what they do. If we think that leadership is knowing everything and knowing more than other people do, we’re really in trouble.”

INSEAD’s Executive Master in Change, where Fitzsimons teaches, takes experienced executives deep into the basic drivers of human behavior and the hidden dynamics of organizations, enabling them to lead and inspire others, and create more effective organizations.


Read more from INSEAD, 4 Tips for Creating an Inclusive and Diverse Workforce


About the Author

As one of the world's leading and largest graduate business schools, INSEAD offers participants a truly global educational experience. With campuses in Europe (France), Asia (Singapore) and Middle East (United Arab Emirates), INSEAD's business education and research spans three continents. The school’s 145 renowned faculty members from 40 countries inspire more than 1,400 students in its degree and PhD programmes. In addition, more than 11,000 executives participate in INSEAD's executive education programmes each year. INSEAD’s EMBA programmes are highly ranked by Financial Times, and ranked #1 by Ivy Exec in 2018.