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Six Steps Toward Positive Mental Health

| January 17, 2023

by Laura McCain Patterson

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Laura Patterson, Leadership Coach and Consultant at MOR Associates.  She previously was CIO at the University of Michigan. Laura may be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.]
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated long standing challenges to employee health and well-being and has contributed to a high rate of employee attrition in the workplace. Close to two thirds of adults (63%) completing a poll by the American Psychological Association said their life has been forever changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many reported worse mental health, lower physical activity, disturbed sleep, and increased reliance on unhealthy habits. With burnout at an all-time high, leaders wonder if they can make a difference and if the investment into better mental health offerings will have an impact.  There are many indicators that it will.
For most people, work may be the only place that offers structure and services for mental health care when needed. In addition, a work environment that supports the mental health of employees can boost morale, increase productivity, and decrease staff attrition. According to the American Psychological Association, people who feel tense or stressed during the workday are more than three times as likely to say they plan to look for another job, while employees who feel supported are more likely to stay, reducing the costs of employee turnover.
Many universities have long standing wellness programs that focus on the physical well-being of the employees, and some of these programs address the mental health of the individual.  As a leader in your organization, you may already be well invested and supportive of these important efforts. While these programs target the needs of the individual, few address the long term, systemic issues in the workplace that are contributing to burnout and mental health challenges. Adopting a lens that looks at better mental health as an organizational strategy will enable you to take positive action both to address the needs of individual employees and reduce the contributing stressors. Here are six steps you could take to put positive action in motion:

1. Build a culture of belonging and trust. There are many no- or low- cost activities you can initiate to help people get to know each other on a personal level. Encourage brown bag lunches over shared interests such as book clubs, pets, fitness, travel, etc. Start meetings (virtual and physical) with a “check in” in which people share how they are doing with the person next to them or in a small group. Employees who believe that someone at work cares about them and that they belong in an organization are more likely to confide in a manager or a colleague when mental health stressors arise. 

2. Develop managers to promote health and well-being as much as they promote job performance. Give managers flexibility in dealing with employees on a more personal level. Encourage managers to support the personal needs of those who work for them and help them to respond when an employee shares a mental health challenge. Your managers are not therapists, but they can create a safe place for employees to talk and they can learn to recognize when an employee might need help. Make certain managers are aware of the mental health support services your university offers to employees and how to access them.

3. Give employees more autonomy.  As the leader, set the strategic direction and then let the employees determine how the work will get done. Offer a variety in focused, individual work and teamwork, as well as opportunities for rejuvenating and socializing, and the opportunity for choice. Give employees opportunities to identify and solve workplace problems. Establish ways for employees to provide input and feedback on policies, and then act on it in a transparent way. Having autonomy at work increases satisfaction and motivates performance. Even small changes in worker autonomy can make a big difference in employee satisfaction and well-being.

4. Rethink the work. In periods of constrained resources, it is easy to overload employees, especially those who have shown high productivity and a willingness to do whatever it takes to make your organization successful. High demands that extend over long periods of time or high demands coupled with low autonomy is a recipe for mental stress and burnout. Keep workloads reasonable. Consider distributing the work differently to ensure that it is distributed equitably and reasonably, and that processes support getting things done efficiently. Manage low or non-performers who not only fail to meet expectations but also are a drag on team morale. Develop the capability to effectively communicate how much discretionary effort your team has for new projects and set reasonable expectations for how much your team can achieve.

5. Increase the options for when and where employees work. Recent studies have found that giving workers more choice and control over their work schedules improves their mental health. Many employees are caring for children or elderly parents and flexibility of schedule contributes directly to better life-work balance.

6. Focus policies and benefits on mental health.  Work with your HR department to re-examine employee work policies and health benefits with a focus on mental health. There is opportunity now, while mental health awareness is at a high, to address the systemic changes that could contribute to a positive work environment.


Even though a positive outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the stigma and stereotypes about mental health issues have declined, they still exist, making employees hesitant to step forward when help is needed. There is no widely accepted manual or magic formula for managing employee mental health challenges and burnout in the workplace. Skilled managers who are committed to building a culture of caring and trust and who recognize signs of stress in an employee’s mental health are the foundation of a positive workplace. Creating processes that ensure balance in workload, equitable work assignments, flexibility in schedule and autonomy in how work is accomplished will increase job satisfaction. The combination will advance positive mental well-being not just for your employees, but for you as well. 


This Week’s Survey

How pervasive do you feel mental health concerns are in your organization?


From Last Week
Last week we which best describes any New Year resolutions you may have set for 2023:

  • 14% set a technical goal to develop in some way.
  • 23% set an adaptive goal to change something deeper.
  • 19% did both.
  • 44% didn’t set any resolutions.

There was a notable split in responses between those of us who set some sort of a goal (56%) and those who didn’t set any (44%).  For those of us who set a goal, we hope you find last Tuesday’s reading a helpful reference as you consider ways to achieve that resolution.  For those of us who set no resolutions, our reasons are varied.  Perhaps we already have other goals we’re working toward, perhaps we have been too focused on the immediate, or perhaps we have other ways of working toward what is important.  Whatever the rationale, this week’s reading provides a helpful reminder that goals do not occur in isolation and the mental health of both us and those we lead can play a critical role in our ability to focus on goals.