Gut Check: Would Your Employees Come To You With A Personal Mental Health Issue?

March 9, 2015 Vince Molinaro
Gut Check: Would Your Employees Come To You With A Personal Mental Health Issue?I was taking part in a client meeting recently when the issue of mental illness in the workplace came up.

The senior leaders were discussing how this was becoming more prevalent in their organization. They also shared examples which suggested that many of their managers were ill equipped to help employees experiencing mental health issues.

As I reflected on that important discussion, it became clear to me that leaders can play a critical role in supporting employees struggling with a mental health concern.

Estimates in the United States suggest that employees lose more than 200 million work days to mental illness, costing their employers billions of dollars in lost revenue. A 2008 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry said that serious mental illnesses affect more than six per cent of American adults. That costs the U.S. economy more than $193 billion in lost earnings.

This is very serious stuff. It has also been argued that the workplace is the obvious frontline in the battle against mental illness.

Unfortunately far too many employees find themselves in a position where they would not talk to their bosses or co-workers about mental health issues. Recent research from the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health found that four in 10 respondents would not tell their bosses if they had a mental health problem.

The survey looked at more than 2,200 working adults in Ontario. Of those who would keep it a secret, more than half were concerned it would limit or negatively affect their careers. Others cited fear of losing friends, or a bad experience watching a co-worker being treated badly after admitting a mental health issue.

The study also confirmed that those people who would admit to a mental health problem, the majority cited a positive relationship with their manager as the primary reason. So the relationship a leader has with an employee is critical.

This point became acutely apparent to me as I recently learned of the story of Mike Babcock, the successful head coach of Detroit Red Wings. In fact, few leaders have more respect than Babcock who has led teams to several Stanley Cup victories and Olympic gold medals.

In a moving television interview, Babcock discussed his motivation for speaking out about mental health. Babcock saw a program on The Sports Network (TSN) that revealed that many top athletes battle mental illness. He was so moved by the program, he invited TSN into his home to discuss his own experiences.

Of particular note for leaders, however, was Babcock’s admission that over his career, a couple of his players actually came to him and admitted they were suffering from mental illness. Those admissions led to open lines of communication with the players, something that helped them handle the stress of performing and mental illness.

Babcock said it made him feel like a better leader that those players were willing to open to him. “It makes you feel good as a coach when they do come to talk to you.”

And yet, Babcock was forced to admit that in more than a quarter century coaching professional hockey, only two of his players had come forward to admit their mental illnesses. It seems that in the demanding world of professional sport, it’s still difficult for many to admit they need help.

The research I described above, coupled with Babcock’s public gesture, underline the importance of leadership when tackling something as visceral and pervasive as mental health.

Mental health experts frequently recommend that individuals share their illnesses, under the right circumstances, with family, friends and loved ones to help chart a path back to mental well-being. Keeping mental illness secret can only exacerbate the condition.

It’s clear that leaders can play a critical role in helping employees with mental health illnesses. At the heart of the matter is the quality of the relationship between a leader and their direct reports.

This week’s gut check asks a critically important question for you to reflect on: Would your employees come to you with a personal mental health issue?


About the Author

Vince Molinaro

Vince Molinaro is the Global Managing Director of Strategic Solutions at Lee Hecht Harrison. He is also the author of The Leadership Contract – a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. Vince has spent more than 20 years as an adviser to boards and senior executives looking to improve leadership in their organizations.

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