Why organization leadership matters for mental health

Why organization leadership matters for mental health

Manoj Chandran

Leadership at workplaces can catalyze the much-needed transformation in addressing the challenges of mental health

They say that mental health issue are a fast growing concern the world over. One in five of us will suffer from a mental health problem in our lifetime. That’s a lot of people. There’s an urgent need to find solutions that help us manage this problem.

Among the various communities where mental health concerns are critical, the workplace perhaps is one of the most crucial spaces.

To improve the treatment rate (the percentage of people with mental illness who seek help from professionals) in mental health, the World Health Organization (WHO) has ten recommendations to make. Three of these recommendations go beyond seeking solutions in the clinical and services infrastructure. These three are:

  • Shift care away from institutions to community care

  • Educate the public

  • Involve family, community and consumers

Clearly, the WHO points out that it is not enough to look for solutions in ramping up the services infrastructure and providing more mental health professionals. It identifies the crucial role communities play in addressing issues of mental illness. Indeed, one of the most efficiently running communities today is our workplace. Organizations, employing millions at their workforce, are perhaps the most suited communities to play a constructive role in mental healthcare.

Moreover, the WHO, along with the World Bank, reveals that psychosocial issues would be one of the biggest contributor to disability adjusted life years (DALY) (in other words, burden of disease). Businesses and organizations are yet to assess the impact of mental illness on productivity.

There’s one more reason why organizations can be the best catalyst in improving the treatment rate in mental illness. Today, the largest institution that provides support and care to those with mental illness is the family. It is an accepted norm in the society that caregiving responsibility lies solely with the closest family members of people with mental illness. Between this layer of support and the professional help, there is a chasm in the society. This gap creates immeasurable challenges and hurdles for those with mental illness. Workplaces, where people spend a good part of their life, are communities that have huge potential to reverse the adverse role society plays in supporting them.

However, since organizations are made of people who mimic the societal norms of stigmatizing and excluding people with mental illness, they are a great source of possibilities for a transformative future.

Where do we begin?

Leadership has perhaps the biggest influence over workforces in organizations. It is the leadership that directs and transforms the organization. Since we are talking about the workplace as a community space where people begin to reverse their roles in mental healthcare, leadership is the only catalyzing force in organizations that can affect such a large-scale change.

Any change in the perceptions on mental healthcare and attitude towards people with mental illness among the workforce can only take place when the leadership drives the intention for this change down the organization. It is the leadership that is required to understand the need for this shift in mindset among its workforce, both from the perspective of organization benefiting and its social responsibility.

Indeed, as part of its mental healthcare strategy, it is important that access to services must be made available to the workforce. They must be able to reach out to mental health professionals when the need arises. That is the first tangible step that could be taken. However, we have repeatedly seen that it won’t be enough. Mere access to services does not guarantee higher treatment rate.

It needs to be understood that we cannot find solutions for mental health by looking into the past where solutions for physiological issue have been successful. Mental health issues have unique nuances due to the fact that social environment has a strong ramification on the decisions people with mental health issues and their caregivers make. We need to find solutions that are far more inclusive and socially transformative.

Leaders can communicate to their workforce that making the workplace supportive for those with mental health issue must be everyone’s responsibility. The leadership needs to send home the message that when it comes to mental health, each employee is a stakeholder. It is only in the presence of an inclusive environment that people with mental health problems would be encouraged to make the right decisions.

Mental healthcare strategies at organizations must be seen as a social inclusion opportunity. Moreover, creating the right social infrastructure for those with mental illnesses must begin at community level. And, what better community to start this process than workplaces?

White Swan Foundation