Mental health at work: Leadership is key


Employees often don’t want to discuss mental health at work unless they really have to. This is because people are worried about the reaction of their bosses and colleagues. Last month, a web designer in the U.S. wasn’t worried though – and the story went viral.

Madalyn Parker’s out-of-office message and the CEO’s response

When Madalyn Parker felt she needed to take a couple of days off work to focus on her mental health, she left an out-of-office message telling her colleagues exactly that. Ben Congleton, the CEO of the company, then replied stating that he wanted to thank Madalyn for sending such emails. He emphasized that every time she sent the email it was a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health, which should be standard practice at all organisations. He also pointed out that it helps cut through the stigma.

Madalyn later tweeted the email exchange, which received 40,000 likes.


The CEO’s response was significant. He effectively made it clear that Madalyn’s decision to take a few days off for her mental health was a very good thing, which should be the norm, and her openness encouraged other people to do like her.

Taking the lead

When setting mental health policy at work, it’s so much better if the lead comes from senior management, with their approach filtering down the organisation. This means that more junior managers will be confident that they have the support of leaders rather than acting alone. Other employees will feel reassured too.


If leaders have experienced personal mental health issues and are able to share their experiences, this will send an even more powerful message to the workforce.

It’s important that leaders of organisations promote an open culture where employees are not afraid to speak out about mental health problems. A survey by the charity, Mind, has revealed that men, in particular, are reluctant to seek help and take time off when needed. Leaders need to speak out against “macho cultures” where employees battle on in silence without getting help.


Leadership can provide the foundation for addressing mental health at work. This normally involves three areas:

  • Putting measures in place to reduce the risk of employees suffering mental illness at work. Steps could include encouraging proper breaks at lunchtime, ensuring staff take their holidays and are able to switch off, checking that employees are not overworked and offering support in prioritising tasks.
  • Training managers in understanding the importance of mental health wellbeing and the recognising the signs for mental health issues.
  • Supporting employees who do suffer from mental health illness at work. Such assistance may involve referring employees to occupational health, having a permanent health insurance scheme in place (with income protection for employees on long term absences), supporting employees with phased returns to work and making reasonable adjustments to working conditions.


Having poor mental health at work is bad for employees but bad for employers too. When mental health problems are not recognised early, there is likely to be increased absenteeism, high staff turnover, lower productivity and demotivation.

If you need any advice on mental health issues at work or have queries relating to other employment law matters please call 0203 797 1264.