Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Lily Garcia Walton. Lily is Silverchair’s Chief People Officer.

Leading with mental health awareness requires more than a desire to be helpful: It demands thoughtful engagement with your organization’s support offerings; a keen awareness of relevant laws and policies; a willingness to engage with the nuances of performance management; and the courage not only to advocate for a human-centered culture, but to model self-care and self-compassion. The work of mental health awareness begins with an analysis of your approach to leadership and a concerted investment in creating the conditions for others to thrive.

Mental health concept. Man with heart in hands and woman with watering can near abstract silhouette of head with plants.

Understand the options

Become educated about the mental health supports that your organization offers and be ready to share details with your people when necessary. This means, for example, being studious about the contents of your organization’s policy manual and gaining a clear understanding of how your leave and benefit policies work. You do not need to have all the answers, but you need to know enough to be able to discern when additional information of value may be available to your people.

As Silverchair’s Chief People Officer, for example, I receive messages from people managers from time to time asking for clarification on our bereavement and disability leave policies. Our managers might not have an encyclopedic knowledge of those policies, but they know that the policies exist and they are able to direct their people to the right page in our knowledge management system before asking my department for further information.

Understanding the mental health supports that your company offers is also an important precursor to adopting a human-centered mindset, as discussed below. Without engaging with the current state of your organization’s benefits, you cannot credibly advocate for the new and different.

Be vigilant

Knowing what supports your organization offers, you will be far better positioned to understand when those supports are needed. Rather than thinking of your annual equal employment opportunity compliance training as a check-the-box exercise, listen attentively to understand your legal and policy obligations (for example, in the US, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and federal, state, and local anti-discrimination laws). Lawyers refer to this as “spotting the issues”; from a lay perspective, you can think of it as being on alert for anything you may witness or hear about that could indicate someone in your organization may be entitled to legal- or policy-based benefits.

This could look like noticing a member of your team is frequently absent due to illness. Are they prone to seasonal allergies or is this potentially an indication of a more grave or systemic condition? When in doubt, reach out to your human resources team for information and guidance.

Analyze problems holistically

Oftentimes, the first noticeable sign of mental ill-health is a performance challenge. This can look like:

  • A member of your team who is ordinarily punctual has joined the last three meetings 5-10 minutes late.
  • A member of your team who is known for their attention to detail starts to make blatant errors.
  • A member of your team who is known for their collaborative nature starts to snipe at colleagues in meetings.

When performance issues arise, engage in thoughtful analysis: is it a skill issue, a will issue, or something else?

  • Skill Issues. If it is a skill issue, your team member may simply need to be trained (or re-trained) on how to effectively perform essential aspects of their role.
  • Will Issues. If it is a will issue, your team member might have become disengaged or disillusioned with their role for a range of reasons, which could include frustration with lack of career advancement or feeling like their concerns have not been heard. In such a case, you will need to engage in active listening, coach your team member through an analysis of how their state of mind is impacting others, and help them to recognize whether their position and/or the organization is ultimately the right fit.
  • Something else. Mental ill-health is sometimes misdiagnosed as “will issues,” with people managers stopping short of asking the open-ended questions that could lead to an understanding of why someone has become disengaged. Always remember to ask whether there is anything else you or your organization can be doing to support your team member through their performance challenges. You will be surprised how often simply asking how you can help opens the door to honest dialogue about mental health, as well as the pathway to wellbeing.

Always recognize that you and your organization play a critical role in the success of your people – not only training and coaching them, but also creating an environment that supports wellbeing.

Adopt a human-centered mindset

Adopting a human-centered mindset means appreciating this truth and choosing to express it through servant leadership. That is, generating awareness for mental health by advocating for what your people need, giving voice to the challenges you perceive, and being willing to share your opinions regarding what is required of the organization to meet those challenges.

Taking care of people and taking care of business are not in tension with one another. In fact, taking care of people is taking care of business. Your business exists to support people (and the organizations they have founded and worked for) and, despite what the dystopian futurists may say, people are necessary to the success and creative evolution of business.

Model self-care and self-compassion

In a prior guest post about pandemic change management (“Guest Post – Love in the Time of COVID: Lessons in Change Management and Hope Amid the Chaos), I wrote:

If there is any silver lining to our collective experience of these past two years, it is the normalization of what it means to be human in a professional context. Every organization’s change management superpower is the capacity for empathy—by which I mean not just having tolerance for human struggle, but also creating space for people to be people, establishing a baseline of psychological safety that allows everyone to be both imperfect and okay.

Through your example, you give permission for others to be honest and vulnerable about their experience and you create a more inclusive and sustainable workplace.

We cannot give to others what we have not cultivated for ourselves. Therefore, any leader interested in creating a work environment in which it is safe to be human and fallible, in which it is okay not to compound the anguish of mental distress with the pantomime of wellbeing, must closely examine their own relationship with imperfection.

This last point is especially personal for me. Although I have long recognized the importance of self-compassion in leadership, my own progress has been hard-earned and halting. Through my relationships with insightful and caring colleagues willing to make self-reflection and candor central to our ways of working, however, my more recent journey has been revelatory.

I have been able to see how my irresistible impulse to fix everything in sight is the product of trauma-informed over-functioning. I have started to see how my instinct to solve for the pain and unease of others flows from my deep discomfort with the ambiguity that naturally arises from change. In gaining these epiphanies, I have started, ever-so-slightly, to release my grip on the desire to be a hero in favor of the aspiration to be fully present to life.

Much of the self-compassion work I am doing is rooted in the Conscious Leadership Group, which espouses the idea that each of us has a choice between curiosity and being right. Think about that for a moment. When you encounter the unexpected, what do you instinctively do? Do you reject the experience? Do you try to bend it into something more governable? Or do you lean in closely with child-like curiosity to seek insight and understanding?

That pause between the unexpected and our reaction to it is the place where self-compassion emerges.[1] You have a choice in that moment about the reality you create for yourself and those around you: either a reality that denies the inherent imperfection of the human condition or one that allows both the beauty and pain of our experience to be fully expressed.

The work of mental health awareness begins with you.


[1] Resources for developing self-compassion abound. I would recommend exploring Tara Brach self-compassion meditations if you are looking for a place to start.

Lily Garcia Walton

As Chief People Officer, Lily Garcia Walton drives Silverchair’s people strategy, enabling the success of Silverchair’s exceptional professionals. She has more than two decades of experience leading technology, education, media, and professional services organizations through transformative change while preserving a strong culture and a sense of mission.