Insights for leaders to improve mental health at work – Donna Thistlethwaite

Recently I had the pleasure of guesting on Ruth Knight’s Tea and Buns webinar series focused on yarning about issues we are facing as individuals, teams, organisations, or communities. The theme of our particular session was “Are we maintaining our wellness or has resilience become a buzzword?”. The conversation took on a life of its own with a big focus on mental health. There was a wealth of value to those looking for ways to support themselves or their teams.

I loved how Ruth opened the session using the analogy of seasons as a way of understanding mental health. She pointed out that seasons have certain characteristics. Is it summer for you presently? Are things going really well? Are you feeling strong and joyful in your step? Or is it a little bit rainy? Are you perhaps in autumn where you’re feeling that the rain and the cold is getting to you a little bit? Or maybe you’re even in winter where there’s some storms or snow?

Just like the seasons, our mental state is ever changing. Wherever we are, there’s every likelihood that we will wake up one day soon to a sunny day and a spring in our step. We need to gently support ourselves through the more challenging seasons.

Ruth asked me about the season I was in when I experienced my mental health crisis/suicide attempt as a segue into my story. A key takeaway from my story is that we need to reach out when we are struggling and that everything is figure-outable (as Maria Forleo says).

Ruth and I went on to discuss an array of different issues about mental health and the workplace that I have summarised for you below.

What lessons does your experience offer organisations?

Workplaces can learn a lot from my story. For one, sharing stories can normalise mental illness. As we spoke, I noticed an audience member share in the chat how much my story resonated. Stories help people to know they are not alone. We know 45% of Australians experience a mental illness over their life and many of these people are in our workplaces.

The organisation that I previously worked for has taken impressive action to create a mentally healthy workplace, including facilitating conversations about mental health, appointing mental health advocates, and introducing a network of Mental Health First Aiders.

My situation was handled exceptionally well. My Group Manager visited me in the hospital and in the mental health unit (with my consent of course); confidentiality was maintained and they worked with me to plan the best path forward upon my return to work. I actually felt that I could remain and continue my career which was reassuring even though I ultimately decided on an alternative path.

I have seen some fantastic organisations like Seqwater showcase stories of mental health challenges amongst staff and leadership that have been incredibly effective in normalising conversations about mental health and positively changing the culture.

Is there a responsibility on the organisation to make sure we’re mentally well?

The Workplace Health and Safety legislation now covers both psychological and physical safety. We’ve done so well addressing physical hazards as a nation. In my opinion mental health is the next frontier of safety. Besides the legal obligations, it makes good business sense and is morally appropriate.

Organisations must provide an environment that allows staff to go home to their families safely at the end of the day. They need to look at the psychosocial hazards that can be created in the workplace through factors such as poor job design, lack of leadership support, and excessive workload.

Given the high rates of mental health problems we know exist, workplaces have an obligation not to aggravate those health problems.

I also think individuals have a responsibility here, just as they do with their physical safety. We all have a lot of influence over our personal safety including our mental health, probably the greatest degree. If an employee’s mental health is at risk, it is important they take action which could include conversations with leadership to minimise harm.

How do leaders show empathy and listen to staff?

One of the most powerful life skills, and definitely leadership skills, is to be able to listen. You want to be able to sit with someone and their emotions when they are experiencing challenges. I really do believe that all of us are looking to be seen, heard, and loved in life. To be able to do that for another human being is amazing but the effect that it can have for somebody in terms of them feeling connected and seen in life is incredible. It’s not about saying “Oh gosh I know how you feel, I’ve gone through that too, just do this this thing and you’ll be fine”.

We love to solve problems but what is needed is empathy. We need to get comfortable with silence. If we can zip our lips and ask some open-ended questions, it’s probable that they will actually fill the silence. It’s possible that they will be able to solve their problem when they have an opportunity to articulate and therein process what’s happening.

Try using some minimal encouragers, “Tell me more”, “ah ha”, “hmmmm”, leaning in, maintaining eye contact but most importantly being PRESENT. Giving them 100% of your attention is incredibly effective when providing support.

Empathy is not just great for our own teams but it’s good for the way that we work with our clients and our service users as well. Empathy guru, Leanne Butterworth, offered the following definitions for empathy to build our understanding of this skill:

Emotional empathy is you’re sad, I’m sad, we’re all sad together. I then need to regroup from feeling your sadness. Emotional empathy can lead to burn out and requires strong self-care.

Cognitive empathy is “Oh I know how you feel, I’ve been through that too. My sister lost a baby …” Whatever it is. You’re making a lot of assumptions in that piece. If incorrect assumptions are made cognitive empathy will not build connection.

Compassionate empathy is where you share and understand the feelings of another person and respond appropriately.  It involves sitting with the person and their emotions, being present, listening, eye contact, open-ended questions … even a hug if that’s appropriate.

Leanne strongly advocates for the highly effective compassionate empathy in all areas of life and business. You can find out more about Leanne’s work at

Why do we need mental health literacy?

In my opinion, every single one of us needs a degree of mental health awareness. We need to be able to identify signs and symptoms of poor mental health in the workplace, eg. a colleague withdrawing or a change in the demeanour of a subordinate, and know how to confidently act on them.

As leaders, you need to know your people so that you can tell when something’s going on for them and so that you have the relationship needed to be able to engage them in a conversation. If you don’t have the relationship it’s going to be difficult for you to do this and it may not be well received by the person.

Understanding that mental illness is no different from a physical injury or illness is important. I look forward to a time when we don’t distinguish between mental and physical health but right now we’ve got a lot of catching up to do and courses like Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) can help bridge the gap.

I might be perceived as biased as an MHFA instructor but there’s a reason I undertook this accreditation.  I feel really passionate about people developing the skills and confidence to be able to have a conversation with somebody and to be able to help guide them to getting some support that can get them back on track really quickly. What we know is that 65% of people with a common mental illness don’t access professional help but they’re far more likely to do so if someone they know suggests it.

MHFA teaches a framework that can guide a conversation with somebody, facilitates excellent mental health literacy, and includes resources for referrals. The key skill though is listening. If you don’t remember anything else when it comes to having a wellbeing conversation with somebody, effective listening will have a massive impact.

My recommendation is for all organisations to get some mental health awareness happening in their workplace. Start talking about it if you’re not already. You want to normalise mental health conversations to reduce stigma. Introduce a mental health policy, or at least a guideline, in your organisation. Consider the psychosocial hazards in the workplace. WorkSafe Queensland has some excellent resources and there are national resources available as well. Use these to conduct a psychosocial hazard audit in your company.

I trust you have found this article helpful. The webinar contains additional valuable information and you’re welcome to check it out here.

Donna Thistlethwaite is a Brisbane-based speaker and trainer specialising in mental health and resilience. She is an accredited Mental Health First Aid Instructor and Resilience at Work Facilitator with a passion for suicide prevention and for helping individuals, teams and organisations to THRIVE. You can find out about her next Mental Health First Aid courses here.

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