Mental health awareness is a management matter.

When I was a young manager, I did not consider mental health to be a management matter, even though as a psychologist I was aware that mental health problems can arise at work. In the unlikely event that a team member might show disturbing symptoms, the responsible thing would be to refer them to an appropriate professional, as one would if someone showed symptoms of heart failure, for example. 

But the incidence of mental health problems is increasing and we are more aware now of the physical and mental health consequences of the stresses people face both at work and at home. When they arrive at work, our people sometimes bring with them the most incredible challenges from dysfunctional homes and collapsing communities. 

At work we should do our best to reduce the toxic effect of excessive workloads, unclear or conflicting work roles, unsafe or poor physical working conditions, violence, bullying, and discrimination. 

If we ignore mental health concerns we are risking ignoring a substantial risk factor in our businesses. Putting up a cheerful poster in the lift proclaiming, “Don’t worry; be happy” doesn’t really do it justice. 

But the “Don’t worry; be happy” protagonists do have a point. We have begun to recognise that dealing with mental health at work should go beyond a merely reactive approach. Managers can create a healthy environment that not only responds to individual sufferers, but actively promotes good health for everyone. An organisational culture that deeply values the humanity of each person is one of the best work-based contributors to great mental health. This is good for business. Think of the advantage brought by healthy, happy, and collaborative colleagues. Health is thus clearly a management matter.

There is a confusing multiplicity of mental health awareness months, but May seems to be widely recognised around the world. The theme for Mental Health Awareness Month this year is “Movement: Moving more for our mental health”. As the British Mental Health Foundation puts it, “Moving more can increase your energy, reduce stress and anxiety, and boost your self-esteem.”

Exercise is usually touted as the single best contributor to good physical health, but promoting it for mental health illustrates that good health does not fit neatly into professional silos. Human beings are integrated organisms, and our physical, mental and social sources of health are all inextricably connected.

That makes sense, because the healthier I am, the more likely I am to be happy. And the happier I am, the more likely I am to enjoy good relationships. And to complete the cycle of physical, mental and social health, the better connected I am to others, the healthier I will be physically. 

A great example of this is provided by emerging research findings about loneliness. We know loneliness is associated with depression and with earlier onset of dementia and maybe Parkinson’s disease, and now researchers are apparently finding that there are changes in the brain associated with loneliness. 

Staff should be trained in mental health awareness and how to build both their own and their colleagues’ positive coping methods. It’s also important to reduce the stigma associated with mental health problems so that those with problems can get help before they damage their careers.

Managers can be trained to understand how job stressors affect mental health and how they can be managed. They can learn interpersonal skills like open communication and active listening, and how to recognize and respond to people experiencing emotional distress.

As the World Health Organisation points out, decent work provides a sense of confidence, purpose and achievement, an opportunity for positive relationships and inclusion in a community, and structured routines. As managers, we have the opportunity to help our teams grow in health.

Jonathan Cook, a counselling psychologist, chairs the African Management Institute. This is a coaching column for Business Day, published on 14th May 2024 (https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2024-05-14-jonathan-cook-employees-mental-health-is-a-management-concern/).

If you’d like to read previous columns in this series or ask Jonathan a question please visit

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