Mental health protection for senior staff benefits all

Senior managers and directors may be offered sufficient financial rewards but looking after their mental health will benefit both the individual and the company, says Validium’s Mandy Rutter.

The success of the Mental Health Discrimination Bill is part of an important shift in attitudes towards mental illness: that people who have had mental health problems should not be barred from taking on responsibilities (such as MPs and jury members, as well as leading private- and public-sector organisations). Unfortunately, there will always be levels of prejudice and discrimination against people with mental health problems, mostly unseen and untraceable.

Introducing legislation at least addresses the legal anomaly of mental health discrimination and starts a conversation about mental health and work. This dialogue raises questions for all of us about the impact of mental health problems at work, how they can be addressed and how employees can be supported in order to maintain their relationships and performance in the workplace.

Managers’ mental health

For OH professionals, the legislation may seem to be a technical formality. However, one area of focus is the issue of the mental health of senior managers and directors, and how organisations look after their senior staff. At present, the “looking after” is done through financial rewards, healthcare and maybe an annual medical.

Research has consistently indicated that money, in itself, isn’t necessarily the solution for compensating people who are expected to shoulder high levels of responsibility and pressure, make the key decisions and be entirely consistent in their level of performance. The majority of senior staff give huge amounts of time, effort, commitment and loyalty. They are expected to give extra and, therefore, perhaps they need to be offered extra in terms of support – and not just cash.

What we observe through our work in organisations is that most people who hold senior posts are relatively insightful when it comes to their own performance and behaviour. Their role is important enough to them to ensure that they are self-aware and keen to act when there are any problems. They will generally reach out and look for the response that is needed, whether it is a lifestyle change, therapy or medication. In these cases, senior staff are perfectly able to manage mental health challenges and continue to be effective in their business role.

Reduced awareness

However, problems can occur when these staff don’t know or are unable to see what is happening to themselves. Sometimes the impact of high stress and managing high risk is to withdraw, ignore feedback and lose insight. This is when self-awareness reduces and our risk of developing mental health problems increases.

quotemarksTwice yearly, directors are offered confidential sessions with an experienced clinician to discuss the impact of work on their lives and to assess their level of resilience.”

The other critical influence over mental health issues, and one where OH has more of an obvious role, is the working environment. A workplace where there are continuous demands, ever-increasing targets and the pressure for ever-greater corporate achievements needs to be matched in terms of psychological support. If this matching of psychological input and corporate output doesn’t happen, there is a risk of senior managers feeling trapped, stuck and caught in an increasingly pressurised cycle of constant demands.

Decision making is affected, and there is a loss of patience, empathy, reflection, insight and strategic thought – all the characteristics that are essential and valued in senior staff. If these changes are not recognised, the situation can deteriorate and lead to depression, anxiety, burn out and other mental health problems, which affect personal and professional lives.

Leaders who are able to talk about their strengths and vulnerabilities, and who are able to articulate and demonstrate a positive balanced message to followers and staff, are more likely to listen to feedback and develop insight. But for this to happen, there needs to be a culture of support and understanding within an organisation.

For example, at Validium we recognised that those holding senior roles at our customers were not regular users of the traditional employee support services, and so we developed a tailored programme of services for them. Twice yearly, directors are offered confidential sessions with an experienced clinician to discuss the impact of work on their lives and to assess their level of resilience. Feedback from these sessions demonstrated that the most useful aspect of the session reported by senior managers is the opportunity to offload in a confidential setting.


We all need to review our prejudices at times, our patterns of thinking and our assumptions. We have to be capable of judging each case on its merits. There are always going to be some people who are clearly unable to work for a period of time because of a mental health issue, and some who can carry on and manage their situation. The new legislation is more then a technicality because it makes organisations and individuals think about what mental health is and what it means to take on responsibility.

The ideal will be that talented people who felt barred from working at senior levels will now feel able to return to work and make their contribution, and generally that mental health will be discussed in a positive, realistic way and not in hushed tones and with suspicion.

Mandy Rutter is a senior clinical business manager at Validium.

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