Leadership and mental health

Photo of a white woman with a brown ponytail, wearing a red sweater, leaning her forehead on her laptop.

Employee mental health is the top priority for almost every HR person I’ve been in contact with recently.

We’re not wired, mentally, emotionally, or physically, to undergo extended periods of uncertainty and stress. Yet what has this last year been, but … an extended period of uncertainty and stress? I’m sure I don’t need to convince you of that.

So what can you do to support your team, without overstepping the boundaries of your qualifications and role?

Name the elephant in the room

If you’ve been around me for any length of time, you know one of my favorite rants is on the insane notion that we can somehow separate from our emotional experience whilst we’re at work.

We’re human, and that means we have emotions. And those emotions aren’t something we can set aside on the way to our desk, and then pick back up again when we finish the workday.

Trying to do so only increases stress.

I’m not suggesting that your Zoom meetings should become therapy sessions – far from it.

I am saying that it’s okay to name the elephant in the room. Let your team know that everyone is stressed, everyone is working under difficult circumstances, and that’s real and part of the “now normal.”

It’s also worth pointing out that just because one person appears to have more challenges, that doesn’t mean anyone else’s challenges aren’t … challenging. Comparison is irrelevant. Everyone’s experience is their experience; it’s personal, individual, and not relative to anyone else’s.

Red, yellow, green

Jerry Colonna, executive coach, startup consultant, and founder at Reboot.io, uses a simple tool with his team. At the start of meetings, they each say just one word about how they are that day: red (really stressed), yellow (not great, but not awful), and green (totally cool and okay).

This requires some vulnerability, but it’s extremely helpful for everyone on your team to know how their colleagues are doing, and therefore to understand what they can expect from them. For instance, if you have a team member who’s flagged himself “red,” you’ll know to take it a little easy on him; on the other hand, your “green” employee can be challenged on a due date or deliverable – and so on.

Want an even easier way to indicate state of mind? Make up little flags or paddles that people can use to indicate where they’re at. Then they don’t have to say a thing, but just have the red, yellow, or green sign in view on their desk. Or, for a little more fun, try using sad / neutral / happy emojis.

It’s okay to care

I was listening to Brene Brown’s podcast Dare to Lead, and in one of the first episodes she quotes an Air Force General: “We actually say, going all the way up, that affection for the people we lead is non-negotiable.”

If the military can do it, you can too.

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Find ways that work for who you are to be aware of – and care about – your individual employees’ stress and anxiety levels, and to show them that you care about their wellbeing. Check in with them in ways that match your style as well as that of your employees. This could be a private Slack message, a text message, a phone call, an e-card (I’m a big fan of Jacquie Lawson‘s animated cards) – whatever seems right for you and appropriate for the employee in question.

And be aware, too, of what options you have to suggest to an employee who’s struggling. Check with your HR department: is there a resource they can offer, such as an EAP (Employee Assistance Program)? If not, can you work with HR to either bring such a program in to your company, or to find other resources to offer?

You, too!

How are you doing? What are you doing to stay on track, emotionally, personally, and professionally?

As leaders, it’s easy to put our focus on everything except ourselves: the work that needs to get done, the members of our team, and then, of course, our families and friends.

So take some time every day to stop. Pause. Check in with yourself. What do you need, right now, this moment, to feel even a little bit better? Water? A quick dance party with yourself? A satisfying stretch? A message to a friend or family member, just to feel more connected?

It doesn’t have to be a big thing to create just a little more space and ease to your life – and that of your employees.


Whatever we might wish – change isn’t going to stop happening. Leading through change, whether it’s at the team, department, company, or global level (hello, pandemic!), is a different, and exceedingly important, skillset from managing change. Learn more about change leadership here.


gljudson Professional empathy