Mental Health Leadership

Mental Health Leadership


We have worked in the field of resilience for over 20 years. We have helped our clients understand how resilience fails, how to bounce, and how to sustain an effective integration between work and life. Dealing with our mental illness reality demands a specific, tailored response.

In 2017 we launched our first programmes to help leaders and managers increase their skill and confidence to support mental illness and recovery in their businesses. The original article is here.

Find out more about our mental health training programme options and toolkit.

Since that time we have worked with hundreds of leaders to refine and deliver a simple, cost-effective solution. The situation is more pressing:

  • Mental illness is firmly in focus at all levels of society
  • Attention disorders, isolation, anxiety and depression are common
  • Health & safety legislation demands that business pays attention
  • Work is increasingly complex, fluid, uncertain and pressured
  • People are struggling to keep key parts of their lives integrated
  • Disruption in many forms is an ever-present threat
  • Leaders very much want to learn how to lead for mental wellbeing

This is the basic course structure which can be run through workshops or our Resilience App digital training. It includes a comprehensive workbook.

Leading Mental Health Course Guide

Find out more about our mental health training programme options and toolkit.

For a quick insight into the course:

Quick Facts on Mental Illness at Work

  • $1 trillion cost to global productivity and affecting 615m
  • 50% increase in depression and anxiety (1990- 2013)
  • ROI from mental health programmes is $4+ for each $1 (npv)
  • 25% of students (13 to 18) affected by anxiety
  • Conflict, impulsive outbursts, bullying…
  • Social withdrawal disorder and autism increasing (1m/year)
  • Substance abuse has a significant mental health overlap
  • Depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, dementias…

Our conclusion is that a basic understanding of the key concepts that underpin mental illness is necessary. Further, we recommend that every leader and manager can recognise the key signs of common conditions. Let’s start with the common conditions:

1. Depression

Depression, diagnosed as unremitting sadness, loss of confidence, confusion, appetite and sleep disturbance for two weeks is the most common. Suicide takes 800,000 lives per year and depression has a massive cost to productivity. Sadness prevails and it is a form of “freeze” reaction

  • Physical signs: loss of energy, disturbed appetite, sleep disturbance
  • Emotional signs: sadness, despair, tears, joyless and loss of hope
  • Cognitive signs: confusion, self-doubt, poor memory, indecisive

2. Anxiety

Distress first presents with physical symptoms such as tension, respiratory, cardiac, abdominal or skin disorders. When overwhelmed by pressure, we experience anxiety and worry. We all feel anxiety (fear) at times. It is a “flight” reaction.

  • Distress symptoms – body, sleep, weight
  • Emotional outbursts – tears, panic, anger
  • Hyperventilation – sighing, breath-holding, mouth breathing
  • Persistent worry about the future
  • Health issues may be present
  • People may present as “not coping”

3. Hostility Disorders

Given the apparent increase in anger in society, this is an important condition. This is the “fight” response and may present as:

  • Angry outbursts, shouting, swearing and calling out others
  • Passive aggressive resistance and resentment…..

Clearly, no mental illness suddenly presents. It is almost always a process of progressive failure. It starts in the mind, progresses to emotion and only then presents as a diagnosis. Leaders who can recognise the process can intervene skilfully and prevent illness. This means being alert to overload, attention failure and withdrawal as below.

Diagram showing how resilience fails progressively

Supporting Bounce

Leaders skilled at noticing how and when resilience fails are powerfully placed to intervene and prevent risk.

For example: at Confused, simplify priorities and give people a clear goal. At Disengaged understand how to establish rhythms, breaks and rejuvenation disciplines. At Withdrawn, reach out to a person and be sincerely interested. However, a leader’s job is not to be a psychiatrist.

While a better understanding and skilful bounce reinforcement is effective, it is important to know where skilled help can be found. That may be through human resources, EAP, coaches, psychologists or medical specialists. Our experience is that many leaders do not follow up. When someone is referred to expert help it is important to know that the event actually happened, how it is followed up and preferably some measures on how things have improved.

The key disciplines of rapid, skilled bounce

Powerful Conversations

When one of your team is struggling with a mental health issue it can be unsettling. Be brave and meet with confidence. You are an important aspect of recovery.

Always be sincerely respectful. If you are concerned, reach out to someone in privacy and in a supportive environment. Sometimes simply showing your care can begin recovery.

Secondly, know your limits. Your job is not to be a psychologist. In conjunction with your people team make sure you work towards an appropriate referral.

Thirdly, be present for the recovery process. Part of the leader or manager’s job is to facilitate return to work. Let someone who needs help know that you expect them to recover and come back to work. Most people do.

We are seeing increasing distress amongst leaders who, while dealing with demanding roles, are taking perhaps too much of a supportive role with team members who may be suffering. The world of work is tough. Leaders must remain strong and resilient themselves. If we become too involved in the suffering of others we may suffer what is now termed empathic distress (compassion fatigue). The leader takes on the suffering of the team member. This will render you ineffective as a leader and will compromise both effective empathy and skilful support.

As we deal with more distress in the workplace, leaders need to step up to and take much better care of their own physical, emotional and cognitive resilience. Implementing a daily routine to support and sustain resilience is essential.

Spirit in Action Part 3

Spirit in Action Part 3

“Life is a storm. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you human is what you do when that storm comes.”
Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo

Part 1 explored what Spirit in Action is and Part 2 scoped out why this is important at individual, community and planetary levels of function. In Part 3 the question to address is: “What exactly should, could or will I do?”

This is the most difficult challenge to engage with. Our personal responsibility is contentious. Some strive for decades in abject poverty, accumulating tens of thousands of hours in prayer or meditation. Others simply relax into the moment. You might choose to punish the body, discipline the emotions or train the mind. Or, you may choose bacchanalian revelry.

For many today, drifting about in mindless fidgeting, distraction and impulse gratification becomes the default. As we see in burgeoning reports the impact is clearly evident:

  • We spend 10 hours in front of a screen versus 17 minutes active (National Geographic, 2017)
  • The average person will touch, swipe or tap a phone 2,617 times a day (Lewis P, 2017)
  • Our fitness, strength and posture are in decline (Journal of Physical Therapy, 2016)
  • Over 70% take medication and 2% take over 5 medications (Mayo Clinic, 2015)
  • Adults sleep an hour less than needed – teens 2 hours less (Walker M, 2018)
  • We are self-centred and lonely – teen togetherness dropped 40% 2010-15 (Twenge J, 2017)
  • Anxiety (and worry) is a constant companion
  • Depression and suicide continue to increase
  • We have pushed our planet into the 6th great extinction (McKibben B, 2019)

Gyms, diet books, mindfulness, mental health professionals, medicine as a whole and medication have little impact beyond a lucky few. We desperately need a fresh approach.

The question “what should, could or will I do?” becomes interesting. With unlimited freedom to choose combined with the irresistible compulsion to react to short term gratification, most of us have surrendered the quest for higher levels of consciousness.

Many religions have been used on a “should” basis. Authorities decree that people should follow the rules of the church. If we look at the state of many lives, perhaps the approach has merit in our modern world.

What we “could” do is extraordinary. Imagine if we applied modern wisdom, technology and medicine with respect and resolve to human life. This is incredibly exciting. We are clearly capable of immense greatness – peace, vitality, love, clarity and flow. We watch this achievement amongst our athletes, musicians, artists, entrepreneurs and philanthropists.

Aim high

This vision of actualised human beings has guided the great work of William James, Abraham Maslow, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, Ken Wilber and those at the Mind & Life Institute. It is a vision of optimism and hope. In the face of the many challenges facing humanity, it is essential to remember and drill this possibility.

Spirit in Action is a method to frame and guide this journey. If willing and able, here are five deliberate practices that will take you to a much better place.

First, strive to be calm, steady and still in the storms of life. Caught up in the adrenaline surge of fight or flight, we sink to a reptilian level of consciousness. When calm you are healing, moving, feeling and thinking better.

Drill: learn and master contemplative/breathing/relaxing practice 5 min per day

Second, strive to be healthy, energised and dynamic. Illness, fatigue or lethargy makes the experience of enlightenment impossible to sustain. Being able to enjoy vitality is a key part of the experience of connection and joy.

Drill: be non-negotiable in your sleep, activity and nutritional disciplines

Third, strive to be positive, empathic and caring. It is essential to consciously feel and flex your emotions with an orientation towards generosity. The experience of peace, love and joy is diagnostic of enlightenment for many theologians.

Drill: restrain your impulses, generate joy and respect the joy of others

Fourth, strive to be present, focused and clear. Ruminating on the past or fretting about the future causes suffering. When present, we experience each moment in its fullness. Suffering drops away.

Drill: catch your thinking and focus 100% on the present moment

Fifth, live with skill and purpose – particularly in the testing moments. Flow is the state of full engagement with a meaningful challenge. Whether this is in loving prayer, skilled acts of compassion or creative pursuit, your spirit (little self) is in action and you will feel one with Spirit (greater reality).

Drill: define how, where and why you get flow and get a little every day

Accepting wise mentorship on this path of deliberate practice will accelerate your quest. It is very easy to get stuck in eddies when one area consumes too much attention. Many who exercise fanatically clean forget to relax or develop their emotions. Many meditate at the expense of their physical capabilities. Sometimes too much love, can distort our altruism into destructive sympathy.

Our development framework for Spirit in Action

Each of these base categories of discipline can reach levels of enlightenment. Consider the advanced yogi (super-calm), your favourite athlete (grace), Buddhist compassion (love), mathematical brilliance (clarity). They all trend towards flow.

There are many paths available for enlightenment. We live in a wonderfully diverse and creative world because humans courageously pioneer untrodden paths. Use the basic concepts and the lessons of our great spiritual traditions to stabilise and direct your journey. Seek truth, respect and practicality.

At the end of the day you have to choose and walk your own path.

As Gandhi reminds us:

To remake the world, you have to remake yourself.


Spirit in Action Part 2

Spirit in Action Part 2



What might a contemporary wisdom embrace? Can we seek to better express a shared narrative that seeks truth and goodness? How do we make this wisdom fit for purpose in 2020?

Part 1 explored spirit from two perspectives. First, the outer journey of connecting to a greater reality (Spirit). Second, the inner journey of integrating our physical, emotional and mental resources to nurture our essence (spirit). Both are basic freedoms for which we are each responsible.

We recognise and acknowledge different spiritual narratives – or religions. Many (see Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy) believe that they share a core wisdom. The core wisdom seeks truth and goodness. Humans, as story-tellers, are free to express the stories that help us make sense of, and apply, wisdom.

Purpose and Direction

More people die from suicide (800,000 per year) than are killed by human violence (21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Noah Y. Harari, 2018). While fulfilment of basic needs has improved, human wellbeing is in decline. Suffering – particularly in terms of anxiety and depression – is overwhelming. Despair is widespread.

The core purpose of spiritual wisdom is to reduce suffering. As we reduce suffering, we experience more joy. This is the direction of spirit in action. It is simple and clear.

  1. Understand and reduce suffering.
  2. Seek to build wellbeing and joy.

The fuel for this journey is hope. Modern wisdom must deliver a message of hope to people. That hope must be built on a good narrative and practical steps one can take to reduce suffering and increase joy. Each person must learn from an early age how to take responsibility for their physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. The must believe in growth for it is here that hope lies.

Subjectivity and Inclusiveness

Usage of “I” has trumped “we” in recent decades. Does spiritual wisdom serve the individual or all life? We express a wide range of subjectivity. Some risk health and life to boost muscle mass for a fleeting sense of pride. Others seek a drug or alcohol fix to serve an impulse of joy. Many fiercely serve and defend their tribe, race or nation as we see in modern populism. We may even seek to serve all sentient beings and the resilience of the planet.

This is a wicked challenge. It may be the most crucial responsibility of wisdom. While humans are easily seduced into selfish impulse, we are equipped with empathy and altruism. We spontaneously seek to reduce suffering. We can care so much for a child, money or a cause that we can neglect ourselves and others who need us. Unrestrained sympathy can cause more suffering.

Religious conquests with noble objectives to serve ‘god’ and secure a place in heaven, destroyed communities and their cultural achievements. Today we serve money with a devotion that has squandered the beauty of our planet and put all forms of life at extreme risk. Many put their own life and wellbeing at risk on a daily basis to earn an extra dollar.

At the end of the day, the dilemma is what to love? Myself now, my place in heaven, my children, my tribe, money, humanity, the rhinos or pangolins, all life, natural beauty, truth…? One can understand the frustration of rural leaders when billionaire naturalists want to protect animals by taking land, food and hunting rights from their people. Conservation is a war zone driven by love. What irony.

Personal Enlightenment

When resilience fails our behaviour becomes increasingly deluded, short sighted and destructive. We suffer, those around us suffer and hope for a better world is extinguished. The foundation of spiritual wisdom is to support and nurture this inner journey.

The higher we rise the more important it becomes to reinforce this inner discipline. When leaders lie, steal, self-aggrandise and abuse, the community and natural environs suffer. We see this in corrupt nations, churches, NGOs and businesses.

Maybe spiritual wisdom is to serve personal enlightenment only. Ultimately, working on both the inner journey of integrating self and connecting to a higher reality is the only show in town. This is the choice of the contemplative in a cave or monastery. Everything else is secular – cultural, political or scientific.

The commandments might be:

  1. Respect, discipline and love yourself
  2. Respect, acknowledge and be kind to others
  3. Take care of your body
  4. Regulate your emotions
  5. Use your mind to see the truth
  6. Act with wisdom and compassion

The Social Contract

We are social creatures. Our individual wellbeing is intimately connected to our community resilience. When we jointly debate and resolve how best to move away from suffering and towards joy, we become an enlightened and just society. The community is a powerful catalyst and support of the personal, inner journey.

A spiritual wisdom can be the mission and values that bond individual and community into a just, compassionate and creative force. When leaders and community hold each other to account, good will prevail. The different perspectives of a community increase the probability of truth and goodness.

When spiritual wisdom is absent, we have corrupt communities (or failed states). Self-interest, greed, corruption and mass suffering follows. Evil prevails. It is extremely difficult for personal enlightenment to proceed.

The extensive suffering and destruction to people, economies, environment and all fellow species is a catastrophic tragedy that takes generations to repair. Our ‘western’ attempts to intervene have failed miserably. This becomes a challenge to the next level.

Planetary Wisdom

We live in the age of the Anthropocene when human activity is the major shaping force on the planet. What we do over the next decades will shape the future of life. For 30 years we have known clearly the threat to human life and ecosystems. Yet, we continue to play a game of blind Russian roulette with nuclear arms, carbon emissions, population growth, and waste.

Neither the individual nor the community – not even a group of nation states – can solve this particular problem. Governance has evolved from tribe, to region, to nation and now wrestles with integrated regions such as the European Community. The pressing challenge is wise and just governance for all humans and the ecosystems we rely upon.

Our actions or non-actions have profound implications. How much plastic waste is enough? Do we leave failed states to the pillage of their leaders or do we intervene? Do we close coal plants and face economic decline when a coastal population is threatened? Do we leave Africa to double its population knowing full well that many species, habitats and entire ecosystems collapse? At what point do we obliterate a rogue state threatening nuclear attacks?

It is possible to construct a spiritual wisdom that might guide the decisions of global bodies such as the UN or WHO? We are facing questions of what is sacred and what is not. Religions have long restrained our impulses and excesses. It feels like a time when a new wisdom might be needed to restrain our consumptive hedonism so that there is something beyond suffering and despair left for our children’s children.

The call for a spiritual wisdom for humanity is loud. It may go by many names. The principles or commandments might be:

  1. Seek and communicate the truth
  2. Live with restraint and compassion
  3. Respect and steward our planetary ecosystems
  4. Act with courage and creativity
  5. Keep a sense of humour and radiate joy

We will need enlightened individuals and resilient communities to help us debate, construct, guide and maintain it. The alternative is dark.

Part 3 addresses the personal practice of spirit in action.



Spirit in Action: Part 1

Spirit in Action: Part 1

“You have covered physical, emotional and cognitive but surely spiritual is the key factor in many people’s resilience?” the question came from a black South African business woman last week. Even across our team she will get a range of answers. Spirit in Action can be the end goal, quietly ignored or actively rejected.

The topic is contentious and potentially explosive. People can react with anger or contempt. The increasing prevalence of substance abuse, anxiety, depression, and suicide suggest a crisis of meaning. Without constraining the liberty of religious choice, perhaps the spiritual path could do with some cautious and curious dialogue.

Our Resilience Diagnostic and Development model puts “spirit in action” right at the top of our spiral. In a dynamic world of multiple spiritual pathways and secular alternatives, we owe our participant a considered response. We welcome your participation in the dialogue.

I address her question in three parts:

  1. What we mean by Spirit in Action
  2. What a modern belief system might embrace?
  3. What practices underpin progress on a spiritual path?

Let us be respectful and inclusive of the many positive contributions that faith brings to our lives.

Spirit in Action: Part 1

Humans seek meaning. We’ve generated a diverse array of stories to make sense of existence. Some are more helpful than others. Hunter-gatherer communities came up with naturalistic magic. Agricultural – largely patriarchal – communities gave rise to the major spiritual traditions about 2,500 years ago. Some hold to traditional beliefs, while others embrace aspects of modern life such as electronic donations, apps and science.

Today, new spiritual promises compete with the older traditions. Science, sport, designer drugs, music, technology, biological diversity, and money compete successfully for our attention. In the past, you were a loyal convert or dead. Now, we are free to believe and do whatever we like. The thought: ‘god watches over me and might send me to hell’ is less scary.

Without the threat of hell or social sanction, a spiritual path is voluntary. It can be a lonely struggle of self-deprivation, deliberate practice, tenacity and patience. Few take it seriously. On the other hand, the decline in spiritual belief and practice correlates with increasing substance abuse, anxiety, depression and suicide.

As we pursue our own selfish and impulsive desires, we create tremendous suffering, threaten much of the life on earth and even our own existence.

Given the pickle humanity has created, perhaps we actually need a spiritual quest more than ever. But it must be fit for purpose in 2020 – not 500 BC. To work, it requires the principals of evidence-based (true), integral (respecting body, heart, mind and the huge diversity of life) and practical (actionable in effective ways right now).

What is “Spirit in Action”

One can be a force for good without being spiritual. Medicine strives to reduce suffering and disease, NGO’s tackle worthy tasks, and individuals change lives. Secular humanism – a non-religious, evidence-based and coordinated endeavour to improve the lives of humans does not prescribe a belief.

Curing disease, educating women, providing clean water, and delivering justice changes beliefs and delivers extraordinary outcomes. The dedication, self-sacrifice and noble aspirations are actually quite ‘spiritual’. ‘God’ becomes ‘Good’.

Beyond secular humanism, mapping a spiritual path to enlightenment is no easy task. The delicate and all-important question is: “Do I have to believe in God?”

Our hypothesis: spiritual is an experience of union with a greater reality than our small, temporary individual existence.

Your greater reality may be nature, truth, evolution, love, the universe, or simply GOD. This reality – let’s call it Spirit (capital ‘S’) – is vast, largely unknown but integral to the existence of your small self (little ‘s’). When your little self feels fully at peace with and connected to Spirit, we feel the emotions of joy, bliss, love and awe.

As we grow, learn and develop wisdom, our conception of Spirit matures. White, bearded, old man on cloud becomes awe in the presence of nature, and then settles into an abiding peace, love and joy. Eventually, we experience total unity with all in the unfolding moment.

It is humble and wise to honour a higher force beyond ourselves. To make sense of Spirit is a basic freedom that liberates the small self from suffering. The more integrated and connected to Spirit we are the more peace, love and joy we will experience and radiate. While this quest is challenging, without it we face an existential crisis. This quest for meaning and connection is Spirit in Action.

As a scientific mind, an alternative perspective is attractive. Let’s say I recognise the reality of my body, my emotions and my thought. I know they can be quantified. It is clear to me that certain practices and skills lead to a healthier body, positive emotions and clarity of thought. This is good for me and others.

It is possible that my spirit (small ‘s’) is in action, when I experience peace (calm physiology), vitality (healthy body), love (positive emotions), and focus (clarity of thought)? In other words, when my physical, emotional and cognitive resources are at their best, I experience myself at a higher altitude. I am integrated and have become more whole.

This experience of integral being is not just body, emotion and mind. It is something more. Could we call it spirit? I think so. When we are in the integrated state that many call flow, we serve ourselves and others much more skilfully.

In fact, both perspectives are necessary.

Having faith in Spirit, Nature or God, is clearly a source of resilience. Specifically, faith has been shown to help us bounce. It most certainly helps us connect with others. Spiritual community is essential to nurture practice. Our connection to a greater reality is the outer path of the spiritual quest.

When physically compromised, angry or depressed, or confused in mind, it is much harder to connect and integrate with a greater reality. When spirit emerges from a flourishing body, heart and mind, the outer path is clear. We feel resourced and motivated to embark on the spiritual quest. This is the inner path.

My conclusion is that a greater reality – what we call Spirit – is part of Spirit in action. To understand, connect with, and honour this greater reality is the goal of your resilience journey. Each one of us is free to explore this path.

Equally essential, this challenging quest demands that you cultivate and grow physical, emotional and mental strength. This is your source of power for the quest. It is, in our view, also a key part of spirit in action. Once again, each of us is free to embark on the practices that work for you.

In part two, I explore what a modern belief system might embrace.


Humans don’t Burn Out

Humans don’t Burn Out

In May 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) included “Burn-out” as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress.

They call it an occupational phenomenon – not a diagnosis. That is a small mercy.

In the ICD-11, “burn-out” it is characterised by:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and
  • Reduced professional efficacy

In our view, this is a step backwards. The workplace is confronting the complexity of mental illness at work. It incurs a trillion-dollar penalty. Introducing sloppy and confusing language can make the situation worse. Let’s consider this:

  1. Stress is mostly positive and stimulating. We thrive on it.
  2. When pressure is negative, is that the workplace or the person’s fault?
  3. While the pressure of work is a factor, in our experience poor self-management is source of suffering – poor sleep discipline, substance abuse, sloth, anxiety, anger and worry.
  4. There are times when managers abuse and bully staff.
  5. The symptoms listed are so vague and subjective as to be useless.
  6. Engines and electrical circuits may burn out. Human’s don’t do this.
  7. Burn-out is open for business now. Watch the numbers grow.
  8. Blame will land on employers, managers and the economy.

No one will win. Even on a good day, we can convince ourselves on all three WHO symptoms. What happens when we chose to drink too much, worried about our marriage, slept in over the weekend, or fume over a neighbour’s behaviour? And how do we distinguish burn-out from endogenous depression or PTSD?

Yes, we want workplaces to serve our society, compensate fairly, provide stimulation and meaning and even a community. For this to be sustainable, we need people to be physically, emotionally and mentally fit. At the end of the day, this is an individual responsibility. Workplaces can help significantly.

Here is a quick reminder of what we have found to be a far more constructive solution:

Help staff and managers understand how resilience fails

Copyright: Resilience Institute Limited

Train staff and managers to bounce with precision and skill

Copyright: Resilience Institute Limited

Build resilience

Copyright: Resilience Institute Limited