Getting personal about mental health is a sign of strong leadership

Mar 08, 2018

Leaders who speak openly about their own mental health make powerful contributions to developing and maintaining mentally healthy workplaces. Sharing stories can set the tone for positive communication and empower colleagues to reflect on and discuss their own mental wellbeing.

Across a series of articles looking at mental health at work, the Australian Financial Review recently showcased the perspectives of professional services leaders who have opened up to colleagues about their own experiences with a mental health condition and seen a positive outcome.

Several years ago one of Australia’s top tax litigators and lawyers, PwC partner Judy Sullivan, took a short time away from her role to manage her depression after she had become overwhelmed by work demands.

"I had never been there before. I didn't know how to talk about it. I didn't know how to fix it. I thought: everybody is going to think I'm weak. I saw my whole career going down the drain," she said.

After attending a partners' meeting where PwC's new mental health program was discussed, Sullivan confided in a colleague about her condition, and fellow partners soon rallied around to provide a “machine” of support. Gradually, post-recovery, Sullivan felt comfortable opening up about her experience.

"The thing I want to project is that I'm capable and confident, that I'm a good leader,” Sullivan said, disclosing that it felt contradictory to then admit that she had depression. This is why she thinks it’s so important for senior staff to disclose their experiences with mental health “because it is giving permission for everyone to talk about it.”

Similarly, KPMG’s Paul Howes, former high-profile secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union, had previously been reluctant to discuss his mental health condition in the professional setting.

“I discovered that when people in political life in Australia talked about these issues, they were derided or attacked or it was viewed as a weakness,” Howes noted.

However, since joining KPMG in 2014, Howes has addressed staff about his long-standing experience with anxiety and how he manages it.

“Untreated, it can be a major disaster for people’s lives. But treated and dealt with, it can be no different than any other type of illness. And this is the whole point, it is normal. It is not abnormal.”

Howes now has mental health first aid people in every office and works on how to make their workplace open to people who have lots of different issues.

Employer-of-choice research shows that workers view the mental health of a workplace as second only to pay when assessing a new employer, with 71 per cent citing this as an important consideration when looking for a job in the future.  

While on-the-job education and training can help decrease the stigma around mental health, leaders are in the strongest position to positively influence the working environment and the experience of employees.

Some key things that organisational leaders can do to show their commitment include:

  • Demonstrate a visible, active commitment to mental health in the workplace
  • Speak openly about mental health in the workplace, including personal experiences
  • Treat mental health as you would physical health – integrate good health and safety management into all business decisions, policies and procedures
  • Provide flexible working conditions that promote employee mental health.


Strategies for creating mentally healthy workplaces

Addressing mental health at work when you manage others

Creating a mentally healthy workplace: A guide for managers (PDF)

Developing a workplace mental health strategy: A guide for organisations (PDF)


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