5 things leaders can do to reduce the mental health risks in your team

Greg Muller, the Co-Founder of The United Project was chatting with a friend recently and she opened up to him about a challenging workplace experience and the resultant psychological and physiological impacts it had on her.

During the second half of 2020, Sarah* started working for a manager who was new to the company. Within a couple of months, she found herself in a performance improvement process, her regional MD was creating distance and the contracted external HR representative was unable to provide support. Sarah's positive stress quickly moved to negative stress.

Sarah persisted, knowing her performance had been tracking well beyond her KPIs and that she could rely on her supportive peers and the comfort of great customer relationships.

However, within 4 weeks Sarah had a mental health breakdown and developed a serious physiological response that required urgent medical treatment.

Her new manager still pushed to get deadlines hit.

She felt lost, exposed, bullied and helpless.

In this case, the manager seemed to lack the appropriate care, empathy and emotional intelligence that you should expect in this situation. His communication approach, lack of follow through and genuine support was enough to push a mature, experienced woman to near breaking point.

Over 80% of all suicides around the world take place in the working population (commonly defined as 15-64 years of age)1. In Australia, more than half of workers (55.1%) report that no action is being taken in their workplace to address mental health and in 2020, mental health concerns are the most common reason for lower productivity, affecting 3 in 5 workers2. An April 2018 article in the peer reviewed Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found that about 86 of employees reported improved work performance and lower rates of absenteeism after receiving treatment for depression3.

Sadly, Sarah is not alone. This story happens all too often.

If you are a leader in your industry or a team, what can you do to minimise the mental health risks for team members? Here are five useful tips:

1. Be open, real and genuine

Ask your team what behaviour should be stopped and behaviours that could be practiced more often, by those in management and leadership positions. By listening to what others are saying, then reflecting and acting, their voices will feel validated and demonstrate to them that they are important. This is a crucial ingredient to building a trusted and safe work environment.

2. Communicate about purpose (often)

Individuals long to be part of something they can connect to. A well-articulated and shared purpose provides meaning to the work teams do. It pushes them forward regardless of the challenges that lie ahead. Remind team members often about the bigger purpose and how they personally contribute to it.

3. Give your time to everyone

Individual self-worth and belonging are tightly correlative. Don’t mistake a team member’s extraversion as a sign they don’t need a discussion about how they’re doing. Over confidence can be a form of protective layer to deeper insecurities and vulnerabilities. People need to feel part of the team and finding time with each one is a great way to demonstrate it.

4. Educate yourself and your team

Can you have a confident and transparent discussion with your team about mental illness? Are you familiar with how your behaviours are impacting other members of your team? Can you spot the mental health risk indicators in others? Education will help to build a community of care in your team and establish a greater sense of safety.

5. Follow through

A core personal value of Greg’s is ‘say what you mean and do what you say’. So when you make a commitment to a team member, make sure you deliver against it. It’s a clear sign that you respect them, while role modelling the behaviour you want to see from them. This helps build trust and further validates the importance of that person and their work. Not to mention it being a great way to build a motivated and connected culture.


The United Project is focused on the early detection of mental health risks at work. Want to build healthier workplace, one team at a time? Check out our Team United Development Program.

 *Name has been changed

  1. SuperFriend, 2020, “Indicators of a Thriving Workplace Study”.
  2. World Health Organization. 2017. "Depression and Other Common Mental Disorders, Global Health Estimates".
  3. Pfeffer, J & Williams, L. December 2020. “Mental Health in the Workplace: The coming revolution.” McKinsey & Co. Page 7.