World Mental Health Day Blog
Written by Keith Leslie
By Keith Leslie, Chair, Samaritans and Fellow of Windsor Leadership
Keith is Chair at Samaritans in UK & Ireland and Chair of Mental Health At Work CIC, writing and speaking on leadership and mental health. He is a former Partner at Deloitte and McKinsey, advising on complex organisational transformations for the Government & Charity sectors. He was previously Chair at the Mental Health Foundation and Build Africa. This blog draws on material from his book 'A Question Of Leadership – leading organizational change in times of crisis' published by Bloomsbury in 2021.
Leaders frequently say to me things like:
- “Is mental health actually getting worse – or are we just more willing to talk about it?”
- “Mental health is complex – how do I learn what I need to know?”
- “Isn’t this for doctors to deal with – or HR? What do I do as a leader in my organisation?”
When I began working with mental health charities 15 years ago, I would have posed the same questions 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 a few simple answers for leaders in workplaces.
“Is mental health actually getting worse – or are we just more willing to talk about it?”
The answer is ‘yes’. It is great that the stigma around mental health has decreased and more people talk about it. But recent surveys indicate that only 40% of employees would be comfortable discussing their mental health with their manager, so stigma remains.
But it is also true that mental health is getting worse, not just in the UK but across comparable economies. One major factor is the impact of the financial crash of 2007 and the aftermath of austerity in terms of financial insecurity. We are also witnessing the long term impact of the decline in community cohesion, including the decline of traditional family units, the decline of religious and social institutions … and the rise of social media and pressures on young people in particular. Life is tougher and we see it in terms of the highest and sustained suicide rates among low-income middle-aged men and the fastest-rising suicide rates among young people.
“Mental health is complex – how do I learn what I need to know?”
Speaking as an informed amateur, I carry around 2 simplifying principles:
First, there are many different mental illnesses but depression and anxiety are by far the most common. 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.
Second, we have learned a lot of new things 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 but less than we thought. The most important factors are environment and experience. For me, the unforgettable research showed that people who suffered childhood abuse had altered brains and it was the adverse experience that caused it.
There are a number of important consequences of these 2 principles:
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.
Furthermore, the experience of a depressed or anxious individual who is part of a family with access to resources is totally different from the experience of someone from a family that does not have access to therapy, green spaces, good housing etc.
“Isn’t this for doctors to deal with – or HR? What do I do as a leader in my organisation?”
I hope you can see where I am going with this. As a leader of people in the workplace, you will likely have to talk with and lead people who are depressed or anxious. So the basic skills of talking and allying with your people will be incredibly important. Every line manager also needs to be trained appropriately and it’s nothing scary, it’s common sense and practical.
And bear in mind that, as their boss, you play a potentially-big role in their environment and experience – influencing their mental health. Again, training can help you understand moments of stress and what you can do to prevent mental ill-health. In the UK and Ireland, we are fortunate to have many charities and social enterprises that can help you as a leader in raising awareness and building management skills – including Samaritans at samaritans.org and Mental Health At Work at mentalhealthatwork.com
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Mental health has been a personal challenge from my adolescent years, with a mother who was seriously mentally ill her entire life. For most of my life there was no opportunity to channel my passion for the issues but, once we began to unwind the stigma around talking about our mental health, I took chances to be involved in my workplace and with charities. Then I was faced by the challenge of ‘what can or should I say and do? what would help? how do I avoid doing harm?’
Fifteen years on, we have plenty of insight, experience, materials and advisers across every aspect of mentally-healthy workplaces. So, for World Mental Health Day – or on any other opportunity – press for training as a people leader in how to talk with your people about their mental health, and depression and anxiety in particular.
 ‘Stress: Are we coping?’ Mental Health Foundation, May 2018, p11; available at www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/stress-are-we-coping. ‘Mental Health At Work’, Business in the Community, 2014.
 CIPD report published 26 September, 2023. See Our World in Data website for latest statistical trends: https://ourworldindata.org/global-mental-health and National Alliance on Mental Illness https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers. ‘What is depression and why is it rising?’, Juliette Jowit, The Guardian, 4 June 2018, p10. Health Executive Agency (2017) Work-related stress, depression or anxiety statistics in Great Britain 2017. Annual Injury and Ill Health Statistics, Health & Safety Executive, 31 October 2018. Work-related stress statistics in Great Britain 2019, www.hse.gov.uk/statistics.
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