Why leaders must set the tone for mentally healthy workplaces

Rob Stephenson founded the InsideOut Leaderboard to recognise business leaders who are open about their mental health. Here, he shares his thoughts on the role everyone in the organisation has to play in creating a mentally healthy environment


What prompted you to set up the InsideOut Leaderboard and why is it so important to recognise business leaders who are open about their mental health?

I set up the leaderboard a few years ago, soon after sharing my own story of bipolar and really understanding that there are so many people that experience a mental health challenge, but do so in silence. That motivated me to contribute. I did a lot of listening when I was looking into this and I kept hearing the same message that we do not have enough senior leaders who are sharing our stories. 

I thought that was my opportunity to make a difference by providing a platform and safe space to collectively publish a list of business leaders who have the common theme of having a mental health challenge and are prepared to be open about it. Really, the objectives are twofold. One, to showcase those leaders in their own organisations, but also to create a ripple effect of other leaders following suit. I’m pleased to say over the three years that we’ve been running it, we’ve seen more and more leaders put their names to it.

How much of the responsibility around mental health and wellbeing lies with senior leadership?

Senior leadership sets the tone. If your CEO is not prioritising an issue, then it’s probably not going to get done. Without senior and executive committee leadership, you’re not going to move the dial on mental health and wellbeing. It needs to be a strategic priority to make change.

Then it gets implemented throughout the pyramid from the ground up. If you’re not winning over the hearts and minds of mid-management, that’s going to be a blocker. You’ll find plenty of willing participants at the employee level across different parts of the organisation, but it takes that leadership engagement to prioritise it.

If you’re not winning over the hearts and minds of mid-management, that’s going to be a blocker

Alongside that, there’s the whole idea of the provision of good work and psychologically safe environments. That requires all levels of management in an organisation to create a culture where people feel safe, where people can speak up, share a problem, make a mistake, or ask a question. 

There’s a responsibility on all levels of the organisation to create working cultures and environments that are conducive to health – not slaving through 16 hour days and missing holidays and working every weekend. We’re never gonna get well people if we do that.

How do you get everyone on board, especially those in the middle of an organisation who might not be as engaged?

There’s an education piece to be done and there’s an inspiration piece to be done. A lot of managers in an organisation might view wellbeing as a very soft agenda point – it’s nice to have, but we’re too busy to get involved in it. Whereas, actually, if you want your teams performing at their best, they all need to be prioritising their wellbeing to some degree or another. If they’re not, then they won’t be performing at their best. And all of our leaders want their teams to perform their best, I’m sure. 

It’s literally one of those rare situations where the business case and the moral case are in alignment. It’s the right thing to do to create health and happiness in our employees. And actually, if we do it, we’ll be more productive.

How can organisations do more than ‘talk the talk’ and actively work towards creating a mentally healthy workspace?

We’ve got to move beyond talk and into action. There’s currently quite a big perception gap between how employees feel their employer is doing on mental health and how the CEO might feel. And we’ve got to close that gap with action. We’ve got to have meaningful people who are responsible for mental health and wellbeing reporting on the initiatives, discussing them at senior leadership meetings, embedding that into the KPIs of management and measuring it. 

If we’re going to take this seriously, we’ve got to move from talk to action and implementation. The pandemic has elevated the conversation, but it’s not always elevated the action.

How can leaders look after their own mental health while supporting their teams?

My advice to leaders is to put your own oxygen mask on first. It’s a bit of a cliché, but you’ll never be your best if you’re not prioritising your wellness. Then that has the ripple effect of setting the tone of being a role model – saying that it is okay and encouraged to prioritise wellbeing.