How are you? No, really, how are you?: Why mental health is a leadership imperative

Jill Coomber, Managing Director, Integrated Marketing, Europe at Allison+Partners on the power of active listening on Mental Health Awareness Week.

Jill Coomber, Allison+Partners

Managing Director, Integrated Marketing, Europe


If there is one thing to do in this Mental Health Awareness Week it is simply to ask people ‘how are you’ twice and then open your heart and mind and really listen. It is such an easy question, often (mis)used to start a conversation, but can be the simple, most vital ingredient to encouraging stronger mental health in the workplace.   

In the spirit of openness, I will make this piece as personal as I can. I have over 25 years professional mental wellness experience sourced from the University of Working Life, my talented insightful friends and short training courses. I also became a CEO at the age of 27 on the co-founding of an agency which quickly came with the need to build great teams. In any agency the team, the people, sit front and centre of the leadership team’s thinking, so I have spent a fairly hefty amount of time reflecting on and navigating the joys and challenges of people.  

What have I learned and observed? On a bad day? It’s sometimes easy to think you are listening when you really are not. Unconscious bias can get in the way, in so many ways. It’s easy to respond too quickly and get things wrong. To jump to the wrong conclusions. All very tricky. I’ve also seen the happiness of people that have been respected and well supported, been the receiver of passion and loyalty from team members we’ve helped navigate through things, and experienced the sheer joy and pleasure of seeing people excel once these days and challenges have subsided.  

Mental health awareness drives productivity

In reality, we all have mental challenges in life. Mind finds that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England. 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (like anxiety and depression) in any given week in England. It is very likely that if you have not already you will have to navigate a challenge soon and self-education is the key to preparation. 

Part of the workplace solution is also supporting mental diversity, making it de facto more common in the workplace. Companies like SAP, HPE, Microsoft and EY are leading the way here.  SAP for example boasts productivity gains, quality improvement, increased innovation and better employee engagement as key benefits. Harvard Business Review reports (May/June 2017) - and here’s a key insight for mental wellness in the workplace - that once such programmes are in place managers begin to think more deeply about maximising all individuals talents by having greater sensitivity to each individual’s needs. It is the normalisation of all our traits that brings such a fantastic benefit. 

Another common challenge is work related stress which can exaggerate an existing, or uncover a new, mental health challenge. Real people feel real pressure at work sometimes. If we embrace this idea it becomes less about not experiencing or denying the experience of pressure and more about ensuring the right mechanisms are in place to deal with it. It is evident that what brings you joy and allowing yourself the space and time to do this for yourself can work wonders. Managers can play a key support role here helping people find their ‘happy places’. I am lucky to be part of an organisation that understands and supports this as part of its mental health vision for the entire organisation. 

True mental wellness through any organisation happens when it is embraced by the most senior leadership. To be successful in this new era the leadership team also needs to be open and vulnerable themselves.

Jill Coomber, Managing Director, Integrated Marketing, Europe at Allison+Partners

Another vital ingredient, and a key indicator the professionals look for, is your support network.  Family, friends, colleagues and mentors are the pool to pull from.  Finding those 3 or 4 people who you can truly share your experiences and opinions with can be a lifeline.  Interestingly I have observed they are not always who you think they should be either.  

Company wide initiatives, policies, training and benchmarking against KPIs are all important too but at the end of the day the success of mental health initiatives in the workplace really comes down to the 121 relationships of the people on the ground.  

True mental wellness through any organisation happens when it is embraced by the most senior leadership. To be successful in this new era the leadership team also needs to be open and vulnerable themselves. You cannot expect the organisation to embrace this if this team is not leading by example. This is an interesting dilemma, even paradox perhaps, as many team members, on a good day, want to be led by strong, positive, decisive, successful leaders. Can you be both?  That only 14% of workers feel comfortable talking about mental health in the workplace (Personnel Today, 2019) suggests we still have some way to travel here. 

So, what can you do today if you’d like to support Mental Health Awareness Week? Ask the question, twice, then listen. We are all in this together. 


Guest Author

Jill Coomber, Allison+Partners

Managing Director, Integrated Marketing, Europe


Jill has earned a reputation for consistently leading creative, results-focused strategies that drive brand awareness, thought leadership, customer engagement and more. Driven by a fervent belief in the power of marketing and communications to deliver a business level ROI, Jill has spearheaded many national and international campaigns. She has worked across a broad range of brands from large multinationals to ambitious start-ups including Disney, Capcom, Nokia, Panasonic, Playmobil, Suunto, OnePlus, Hello Kitty and Coca Cola Enterprises. The campaigns Jill has led have won many awards, including PRCA’s Campaign of the Year, SABRE’s Best Use of Sponsorship and Masters of Marketing’s Best Content. A career-long entrepreneur and international business owner, Jill joined Allison+Partners in 2018 to lead A+P’s European integrated marketing offer.

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