PRESS RELEASE: Why mental health in the workplace has become a leadership skill


Leaders need to take charge in improving workplace mental health writes Sundrie Naidoo, head of people for Vitality.

The World Health Organisation has indicated that mental health will be the biggest crisis we will face on the planet by 2030. Interestingly, the results of a survey conducted by the Workforce Institute, entitled ‘Mental Health at Work: Managers and Money’ also reveal that mental health is gaining ground as a priority in the workplace.

The survey goes on to highlight that managers have just as much of an impact on employees’ mental health (69%) as their spouse (69%) – and even more of an impact than their doctor (51%) or therapist (41%). With these statistics in mind, Discovery Vitality’s leadership team realised the impact of their roles and the ability to support the teams proactively, to thrive despite the challenges being faced.

Sundrie Naidoo, head of people for Vitality RSA, and Dr Mosima Mabunda, head of wellness for Vitality created the opportunity for leader led dialogues resulting in the Vitality leaders taking a more positive and practical approach to improving the overall mental health of all the employees in the division.

Naidoo, speaking at the launch of the Discovery mental health leadership toolkit, said, “When we first started working on our mental health initiative, we realised that there was a need to focus on more positive psychology, engagement and relationships to create an atmosphere that enables a team to thrive.” Knowing that their leaders were not all equipped with these skills, Naidoo and Mabunda commissioned Dr. Laura Delizonna, an expert at developing science-based solutions for thriving in life and at work from Stanford University to assist them. Delizonna designed a programme which also coached and trained the Vitality management team to facilitate mental wellbeing sessions with employees within their own teams.

Naidoo explained, “These sessions were facilitated small group sessions. Each leader had to own one or two groups for the duration of the programme and assume full accountability. We believed that this could not be another HR initiative because a random HR person in the room, who doesn’t know the team, will end up asking questions that are purely politically correct and that would hardly be engaging or insightful.”

Vitality takes proactive steps to improve workplace happiness

Leaders and employees were all expected to get involved. Each leader personally ran their own sessions with their teams, and they were requested to take full ownership for the initiative. They couldn't postpone or cancel because they were really busy or working on deadlines. The mental wellbeing of their teams was a key priority. Naidoo said, “In some cases, the sessions were run after hours, or very early in the morning to accommodate the servicing teams.” Although the sessions would have been better in person, it wasn’t always possible. Regardless, the sessions went ahead with remarkable success and engagement.

Naidoo explained, “We encouraged the leaders to be vulnerable, to share their own experiences while being careful to keep boundaries in place. When the leaders were faced with situations which was difficult and which they were unable to assist with in terms of their expertise, the employees were picked up by our Healthy Company employee assistance programme.

Health Company provided us with a convenient and effective way to make use of our rich resources within Discovery Health.” Healthy Company identifies and supports both at-risk employees and those who are well, throughout their work-life journey and therefore provided much of the clinical resources needed where leaders were not equipped to deal with it themselves.

Psychological safety is key

The leaders were also coached on psychological safety as part of the programme because they needed to create a safe space for engagement. Without psychological safety, Naidoo believes the programme wouldn’t have worked. Naidoo said, “We prepped all of the leaders with psychological safety training, and that provided the platform to make the initiative work as well as it did.”

Measuring the success of the initiative

Naidoo believes that their teams are happier and are thriving, “We've got amazing engagement scores and our leaders have also grown significantly through the experience. It's provided a purpose and a platform for them to play a role in improving the happiness of their teams.”

Leaders have a multifaceted role in their organisation. With mental health being a priority in the workplace, another layer of skill is going to be required to build a team and an organisation that thrives. If the World Health Organisation’s projection of mental health becoming the biggest crisis we will be facing by 2030, leaders must use this time to proactively make positive and lasting changes.