How leading with compassion can help employers have a more positive impact on mental health

Published by Francesca Hazel on

How leading with compassion can help employers have a more positive impact on mental health

As a human being, I am lucky enough to experience this thing called life. While scientists and philosophers might still be debating what it means to be ‘alive’, to me it is something along the lines of breathing, growing, connecting with others, and experiencing the spectrum of human emotions. I live, I laugh, and I love. I shout and I cry (sometimes a lot). And like many others, I grapple with my mental health.

Today is World Mental Health Day. An annual day created by the Mental Health Foundation, dedicated to raising awareness and driving positive change for everyone’s mental health. This year’s theme is ‘Mental health is a universal human right’. And I’ll be honest, while it’s rare for me to be short on words, this one left me a little stumped. What does it mean for mental health to be a universal human right? And how can we translate that into meaningful action that benefits people? Phew, that feels like a big topic for a Tuesday!

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Mental health as a universal human right

Human rights  are rights that we all have, simply for being human. Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, all humans have ‘the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health’1. And as health is recognised as an inclusive right, this means it is not just limited to access of appropriate health care, but also the underlying determinants such as food supply, housing, and healthy occupational and environmental conditions.

Well that all sounds quite positive, right?

However, despite this, many people still struggle to access appropriate mental health care and achieve ‘good’ standards of mental health.

As very few of us have control over the larger systemic issues at play such as health care and housing, what can we do to actually drive meaningful change?

With work being such a central part of most of our lives, employers have a huge opportunity to build environments and practices that promote good mental health for their employees.

What even is ‘good mental health’?

To delve a bit deeper into this, we first need to understand what ‘good’ mental health looks like.

Good mental health isn’t just an absence of mental disorders but a state of well-being that enables us to cope with daily stressors2. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines it as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes their own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to their community”3.

So, how can employers help more people feel more confident in their abilities and able to cope with the challenges of life?

Since the topic of mental health has become more widely discussed, many employers are realising the need to look at how they can support their employees’ wellbeing. However, when not managed properly, corporate mental health initiatives can fall short.

As someone with experience of dealing with mental health challenges, and working in a range of organisations, here are some of the key things that have actually made a positive difference and helped me feel supported in the workplace.

Kindness and compassion

The age-old saying is true, ‘you never know what someone is going through’. Whether as friends, strangers, co-workers, or leaders, approaching everybody with kindness and compassion can make a big difference to how someone feels and subsequently how they are able to cope.

Meaningful support

We all know how it feels to be offered empty support. The opposite of supported and confident to share how we are honestly feeling! When people, particularly managers, make an effort to build rapport, get to know you and offer genuine support it builds a strong supportive relationship. This not only helps people feel less alone, but it can help someone feel safe and confident enough to ask for help when they need it.

Private channels for support

Many of us desperately try to hide when we are struggling, not wanting to become a burden or appear weak, especially at work. Any program that relies on an employee having to openly ask for help risks limiting the positive impact as many people will simply not come forward. Having a discreet and private channel to access advice or support makes it easier for those that need it.

Building a safe and supportive culture

Many employers develop mental health initiatives with great intentions, but they fall short because the culture doesn’t support mental health being seen as a priority. It takes a lot for someone to speak up if they are struggling and if the culture punishes them rather than supports them, this can be extremely damaging. Feeling valued and cared about builds a safe environment where people can feel more comfortable being open and vulnerable.

Monitoring work levels

Busy periods and crunching for big deadlines is an unavoidable part of most businesses and a certain level of stress can be very productive. However, if this stress is unrelenting or not managed properly it can lead to burn out and negative consequences on mental health. Prioritising mental health means keeping an eye on stress and work levels, to intervene before it becomes damaging. Having back up options in place in case someone’s workload needs to be adjusted and making sure employees feel like their wellbeing is more important than their work output can make all the difference.

Leading by example

Finally, like with most things in business, leading by example is key. You can create the best mental health program in the world, but if your leaders aren’t living and breathing the advice themselves, it will not be effective. The biggest difference that I have personally seen is working for a company where the entire senior leadership team prioritises mental and physical wellbeing every day. They are open and honest, they build relationships with team members, they check-in with them regularly and consistently act when someone needs help.

To conclude, an underlying theme throughout these points is compassion. When an organisation approaches mental health and wellbeing from a place of genuine care for their people, it is felt throughout the business and creates a much stronger impact.

Effective mental health initiatives in practice

At BAD, we truly value every member of our team and their unique qualities and contributions. We are also lucky to work with clients that share these values. The initiatives that we have seen have the biggest impact are the ones that take a human first approach.

When developing a solution, we work with a business to truly understand their people and culture. This helps to identify the real barriers and behaviours that are influencing people’s feelings and decisions. We are then able to use our behavioural science knowledge and design expertise to create a solution that is targeted at these behaviours.

When a large investment bank contacted us, looking to develop a more inclusive environment and help their leaders improve their allyship, we were able to use this behaviour led approach. We conducted a detailed explore phase, including barrier mapping, focus groups and analysis of survey data. Our research showed that it was not a lack of understanding of the inclusion strategy overall, but rather a lack of time and capacity. People didn’t know what they could actually do in the limited time they had with team members.

Therefore, we designed an experience that stayed away from knowledge transfer and focused on allyship action. We used video to show “moments that matter” and thinking traps people can fall into. We also designed “boost” screens to help people make better decisions by offering easy to apply strategies, and created a personal action plan that managers built as they worked through the experience.

All of this goes to show that we can all play a part in supporting each other. After all we are all humans, experiencing this world together. Connection and community are fundamental aspects of good mental health and the more that we can build this into the workplace, the more impact we can have.

If you are interested in exploring ways that your organisation could use behavioural science to improve mental wellbeing or develop a more supportive culture, send us a quick message and one of our team will reach out to you.


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  2. Fusar-Poli P, Salazar de Pablo G, De Micheli A, Nieman DH, Correll CU, Kessing LV, Pfennig A, Bechdolf A, Borgwardt S, Arango C, van Amelsvoort T. What is good mental health? A scoping review. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2020 Feb;31:33-46. doi: 10.1016/j.euroneuro.2019.12.105. Epub 2019 Dec 31. PMID: 31901337.
  3. Paolo Fusar-Poli, Gonzalo Salazar de Pablo, Andrea De Micheli, Dorien H. Nieman, Christoph U. Correll, Lars Vedel Kessing, Andrea Pfennig, Andreas Bechdolf, Stefan Borgwardt, Celso Arango, Therese van Amelsvoort, What is good mental health? A scoping review, European Neuropsychopharmacology, Volume 31, 2020, Pages 33-46, ISSN 0924-977X