Mental health awareness as a leadership skill

9 July 2021


Uncertainty during pandemic times has placed mental health under a magnifying glass. Those who were already suffering were at risk of feeling worse, and those who weren’t might have started feeling anxious or depressed for the first time. Unfortunately, there has been a decline in mental health as we continue to live in times where we are uncertain of the future. 

In addition to that, we have all – to some degree or another – suffered a few losses. The first fear was falling ill or losing someone we love to illness. Then we worried about our jobs and the fragile nature of the economy. There were other losses too – from losing our social lives to the ability to maintain our hobbies, to travelling, to spending time with our loved ones. The list goes on.

We spend a substantial part of our day working or involved in team activities, e.g., voluntary organisations. And so it is only natural that the state of our mental health should affect our work. It would be short-sighted to think that we can maintain a separate persona in the work environment. While it is possible to maintain professionalism when suffering from mental ill-health, these situations can quickly get out of hand if they are not treated appropriately. 

According to the World Health Organisation, mental health is “the state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

As a team leader, responsibility does not only lie in seeing that the work or tasks get done. Leaders should be in a position to notice subtle differences or changes in the members of their team. They should curate the work or team environment so that members feel free to express themselves and, if need be, share their concerns. Members of a team should always know how to seek help.

Leaders must understand the range of presentation of mental health issues and illness, e.g., attention deficit, social anxiety, burnout, anxiety disorder leading to stress, hostility disorders including impulsive behaviour, depressive mood disorders, substance abuse (including alcohol abuse), and other personality disorders. 

They should also understand resilience and the methods different people resort to in order to cope with stress. Leaders are in a unique position to have powerful conversations. Honesty about mental health struggles is a good start. When a leader talks about their struggles, this opens the door for employees or team members to also feel comfortable talking about the topic.

Leaders must also remember to take care of themselves and share that they are doing so; they must make time for relaxation and ‘switching off’ (and really switching off!). Those taking care of others also risk suffering from compassion fatigue; they may forget to take care of their own mental health needs. This sets a bad example for others in their team.

Leaders may find it appropriate to directly check in with individual members to ask if they are doing OK. It’s not enough to do this once (let’s say one month into the pandemic); this needs to be a regular habit that becomes ingrained in the company’s ethos. With team members working from home, it might be even harder to notice subtle changes in behaviour or appearance. It would be difficult to know whether they are struggling without the physical interactions we are used to. 

These are delicate conversations that can easily cross lines. The meeting may be misconstrued as signalling a lack of trust or a desire to micro-manage the team member. This is why listening to the complete answer to specific questions and being compassionate is essential. As team leaders get to know their team players, two-way communication can teach both parties about particular needs.

We caught up with some JCI team leaders to understand the strategies they have employed during this unusual time. 

Katie Black, who works in People & Organisation Development, is JCI Scotland‘s 2021 National President.

Katie Black, JCI Scotland 2021 National President

As a self-proclaimed ‘people person’, Katie loves to bring out the best in people and organisations. She believes in establishing relationships and creating an environment where everyone feels supported, proud, confident, safe, and also challenged and empowered to try new things.

Our mental health can vary for so many reasons, so it’s really important to recognise that everyone has their own stuff going on. Don’t judge or compare their life to yours. Try to be there for them. Be an approachable, friendly face. Someone they can talk to. 

As a trained mental health first aider, I support anyone in distress and signpost them to professional help. This doesn’t change when working with a team. Effective teams are built on connection and trust. This is part of the recipe for success. Yet they are also essential on a more basic, human level.”

As a team player, I believe in having open and honest conversations and letting others know that I’m around if they ever need a chat. The world still feels busy, even though we’ve spent a year in lockdown. So, as JCI Scotland’s National President, I make sure that I am there for my team and our members because you don’t know what someone’s going through until you speak to them. That goes both ways and includes speaking up myself when my mental health isn’t doing so great.

Nicole Borg is 25 years old and works as a PR, Social and Clients Partner. After four years of active involvement within JCI Malta, she is now serving as the National President of the organisation for the year 2021.

Nicole Borg, JCI Malta 2021 National President

Describing herself as a change-maker, Nicole aims to create initiatives that foster positive change within her community. When she is not busy working on her music or volunteering, you will find Nicole curled on her bed, reading one of the hundreds of books from her ever-growing library. 

As leaders, we need to be conscious that mental health is just as important as physical health. From the first moment my team started working together, I sought to be fully transparent with everyone. On days where I was personally struggling, I spoke up and shared my vulnerabilities. Such actions sprouted understanding within the team and I also saw the team members start to speak up when they were struggling with mental health.

“I have been making sure of while leading the 2021 JCI Malta National Board because my team knows that they will not be looked down upon or frowned at if they need mental health days. From day one, I tried to foster the kind of team spirit that, as much as possible, doesn’t leave anyone behind.

Where there’s mutual trust, there’s mutual success. However, it doesn’t stop there. One of our aims in 2021 is to raise awareness on mental health and run sessions with professionals that would help us and our members understand the importance of taking care of ourselves. The aim here is to normalise mental health and illness.

Further reading:

Hansen, S. Early thoughts on a new test of leadership. The Resilience Institute. November 2017. Accessed at: Mental Health: a leader’s guide – The Resilience Institute

Sivaramakrishnan, S., Varnu, P. Here’s why leaders need to care about mental health. World Economic Forum. June 2019. Accessed at: Here’s why leaders need to care about mental health | World Economic Forum (

Greenwood, K., Krol, N. 8 Ways Managers Can Support Employees’ Mental Health. August 2020. Accessed at: 8 Ways Managers Can Support Employees’ Mental Health (



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