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Leading wellbeing: The leader's role in mental health.

June is Men's Mental Health Month

There’s a mental health epidemic in our country.

If you haven’t taken notice, I’m not surprised. Largely, the reaction in today’s business world is to treat mental health as something that the individual must “work harder to get over”. Which is a nice way of saying that people just need to “get their sh*t together.” It’s an interesting disconnect – while our society favors free market capitalism, it willfully ignores that corporations are made up of individuals but, in Canada, those individuals aren’t doing well.

Here are some questions for you:

  • How healthy is Canadian business when over 5 million people aged 15 and older met the diagnostic criteria for a mood, anxiety, or substance use disorder – that’s 18% of the population.

  • How healthy is Canadian business when, among men, 7.6% experienced a major depressive episode, and 5.2% suffered from generalized anxiety disorder.

  • How healthy are our businesses when approximately 4,500 Canadians die by suicide each year (that’s more than 12 each day) and the suicide rate is 3 times higher among men than among women.

The correct answer to all these questions? Not very – and it’s costing us.

The annual economic cost of mental health in Canada is $ 50 Billion

The cost of a workplace disability leave for mental illness is 2-3 times that of a physical illness. It’s hard to nail down because absenteeism is easy to track and the impact easy to measure. However, when employees are present but not particularly productive due to a chronic personal health condition, a mental health challenge, family matter, or other personal matter it’s a much different situation. We can come up with a plan for absenteeism but this presenteeism is disruptive as co-workers, weary from picking up the slack, start expressing their resentment. 

While our society favors free market capitalism, it willfully ignores that corporations are made up of individuals but, in Canada, those individuals aren’t doing well.

Leaders, how can you recognize that an employee might be struggling with their mental health?

If you know your team and you’re paying attention, you’ll notice when ‘your people’ have veered from their baseline behaviors. You don’t need to be a therapist, but you need to be present. Here are some key indicators to watch for:

1.     Changes in Behavior:

  • Increased Absenteeism: Do you have an employee who’s inexplicably absent, these days? Have sick days increased with no clear explanation?

  • Escapist Behavior: It’s sometimes difficult to spot but if an employee is staying late, working weekends, or coming in especially early without a clear reason for doing so you might want to check-in.

  • Physical Symptoms: Stress hits all of us differently. Some of us get chronic headaches, others might have digestive issues, or other persistent physical ailments that can’t be explained away. If you feel a co-worker or direct report isn't looking well, ask.

2. Emotional and Psychological Changes:

  • Mood Swings: Is your usually ‘chill’ employee suddenly not so chill? Are they easily irritated over minor issues or respond disproportionately to criticism? This might be something worth checking out.

  • Difficulty Concentrating: Do you notice that an employee is struggling to focus, make decisions, or complete tasks that normally they wouldn’t have a problem with?

3. Changes in Work Performance:

  • Decreased Productivity: Has there been a noticeable drop in the quality or quantity of work produced?

  • Lack of Engagement: Have you noticed a reduced enthusiasm or motivation for work? Do you have an employee whose now appearing disengaged during meetings and discussions?

  • Uncharacteristic Errors: Have you noticed an employee making more mistakes, or displaying poor judgment in decision-making recently.

The bottom line - behavior is communication.


Everything is connected.


I’ve presented these as separate talking points but, really, all the above bullet points speak to a change in behavior of some kind. Mock the term ‘safe space’, if you must, but your job as a leader is to inquire and, should someone need to talk, they need to know that your office is a confidential space for discussion. Employees need to feel confident that their conversations with you aren’t being shared.

Sometimes, just being able to talk is all it takes but often the hardest thing to do is to reach out and ask "Do you have 5-minutes?" Asking a co-worker to join you for a coffee, could be difference between a 9-1-1 call and a 9-8-8 call.

<- Click Arrow for Mental Health Resources

  • Mental Health Commission of Canada: They offer a practical toolkit to help employers build an inclusive workforce, addressing the needs of workers living with mental illness.

  • Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety: Their ‘Healthy Minds at Work’ website provides access to leading workplace mental health tools and resources, including assessment tools like Guarding Minds at Work and the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.

  • What is 9-8-8? The 9-8-8: Suicide Crisis Helpline offers 24/7/365, trauma-informed and culturally appropriate suicide prevention crisis support in English and French by phone and text for everyone living in Canada. When someone reaches out to 9-8-8, they will be connected to the responder who is closest to them, based on their area code


So how can we improve mental health at work?

Not surprisingly, there are plenty of ideas. Also, not surprisingly, not all are a fit for your workplace or your leadership style. That being said, here are four practical ideas that are easy to implement regardless of what your workplace setting or industry is:

Work on your systems

It’s true that employees leave bad managers. However, it’s more accurate to say that employees leave the systems that create or tolerate bad managers. Good systems not only increase productivity, but they also help identify what each employee needs to efficiently fulfill their role. In this environment, bad managers can’t easily hide.


Start on the inside

Sometimes company’s seek outside consultants help to improve ‘culture’. However, if there are no leaders in the company with a good understanding of workplace dynamics, an outside consultant will be seen as just that – an outsider. Knowledge of culture is important. A company is more than an organizational chart and, it bears repeating - companies are made up of individuals. There are power structures and internal alliances to consider, and these often undermine formal company initiatives. Leaders who know their teams well can identify and engage internal champions who can support the consultant’s efforts and help drive the change from within.

Be Patient – Improvement takes time

Unlike software updates, workplaces can’t be updated with a click of a button. If you are intentional, you’ll accept that improving the workplace is a long-term commitment. Acknowledge the impact of technology on mental health. Look for training opportunities. How can you prioritize meaningful relationships and connections among employees?

Walk the Talk

Leaders remember, there’s no single ideal place to start - just make sure you do, and then be patient. You may want to start by walking around in the morning and talking to your employees. More importantly, listen to them! Sure, you'll feel awkward at first. It will feel awkward for your employees too but, if you stick with it, you may find that MBWA (Management by Walking Around) becomes a key strategy in moving your team forward. (External Link:

Destigmatizing mental health is a key ingredient of the equation.

Leaders, understanding mental health doesn’t make the workplace softer and it doesn’t make you weak. In fact, I’d argue that if military leaders appreciate the impact of mental health, then, you as a leader should too. To quote former US Secretary of the Navy, Thomas Harker “[Mental health is] about early prevention. It’s like cancer, the sooner you catch it, the sooner you can correct it and get whatever it is you need, whether it's counseling, or prescription medications, or religious services,” says Harker, “Whatever it takes … “  If I've got a weakness in my leadership skills, I'm going to do everything I can to develop leadership techniques that will make me a better leader.

As the saying goes, to win – you must begin.


Norm Adams, a Certified Professional Business Coach, was selected the 2023 Business Coach of the Year by the Professional Business Coaches Association of Canada (PBCA). He is a trainer, facilitator, business developer, and business owner with 30-years’ experience working with small business owners, First Nations’ Governments, Indigenous entrepreneurs, as well as public and private companies in Canada and the United States. Do you have an employee who recently suffered a concussion? Ask Norm about his 2015 concussion that sidelined him for 6-months and learn, first hand, about concussion and mental health. Contact Norm today at


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