Image of Marc Ott and an illustration of a person watering a brain with a plant growing out of it

If you have been following my column over the past few years, you will know the level of importance I put on workplace mental health. At the height of the pandemic, I joined with CEOs from like-minded nonprofit organizations—NLC, YMCA, APHA, and APA—to address vaccine hesitancy. We then worked to address changing the culture around mental health in the workplace. At the 2021 ICMA Annual Conference in Portland, we had only one session specifically on workplace well-being. Based on member input, the mental health track has grown steadily with a dozen sessions planned for the 2024 Annual Conference in Pittsburgh this fall.

Two years ago, we asked leaders across all public and private sector organizations to join us formally in committing to change the culture around mental health in the workplace. More than 250 organizations have done so.  It has been especially inspiring to see how many local governments registered their commitment to this crucial priority.

Bold and Deliberate Leadership

Based on discussions with local government leaders around the world, it’s clear that while the pandemic may have highlighted the issues interfering with employee well-being, building a more supportive work environment had not been prioritized. It takes bold and deliberate leadership to address employee mental health and well-being. It is a cultural shift that requires that managers lead by example, and for most of us, modeling healthy behaviors like work-life balance and self-care has been a challenge. I shared some great ideas from a session at the 2022 ICMA Annual Conference on ways leaders can normalize conversations around mental health.

We are making progress in eliminating the stigma associated with mental health. For many leaders, it’s beginning to feel more natural to talk openly with their team, which has helped to erase the feelings of shame that often accompany mental health difficulties. In addition to team meetings where staff can be reminded about resources available to them and personal stories can be shared, one-on-one check-ins also work well. This issue of PM features an article on “stay interviews,” which many city and county governments have incorporated into their best practices. It’s an opportunity to show staff members that they matter.

Addressing the “Whole Person”

Performance appraisals present another avenue to normalize discussions about mental health. We expect team members to bring their “whole selves” to the workplace. That is what truly leads to peak performance experiences and real organizational breakthroughs. It’s also why as leaders, it’s important to open that door and ask lots of questions to better understand how someone is really doing, inquiring about their physical and mental health in addition to how they perform their specific job functions.

It's exciting and daunting to see the changes that have occurred in this area over these past few years. The very definition of work has been evolving as employees quit their jobs in record numbers during the Great Resignation. The U.S. Surgeon General has added workplace mental health and well-being as one of its top priorities.  As leaders we have been challenged to find new ways to address employee well-being, covering everything from remote work to upskilling.

For certain, creating a more sustainable workplace culture demands that we involve everyone and that we engage the whole person in finding solutions. While I stressed the importance of leadership in modeling good mental health behaviors, lasting change can only occur when all levels of the organization are involved, when people can depend on their peers for understanding and encouragement. That includes ICMA members. We encourage you to share your experiences and leading practices through PM, our Leadership Matters enewsletter, ICMA conferences, and online learning.

Now that we are fully engaged in the process of cultivating a mentally healthy workplace and workforce, there’s no way to go but forward.


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