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Why (and how) leaders should support employee mental health

By Laurie Davies

As our tumultuous season of post-pandemic workplace turnover trudges on, mental wellness is, well, top of mind for employers and employees. COVID-19 pushed employee burnout, stress, PTSD and other aspects of mental health to the forefront of national conversation — and employers are taking note.

“Employers are asking, ‘How do we support our employees so we get the best employees and so they feel valued and supported?’” says Rodney Luster, PhD, chair for the Center for Leadership Studies and Organizational Research at University of Phoenix.

The answer, as it turns out, starts at the top.

A moment for leadership

“The employers who are taking a lead on this are asking, ‘How are my employees doing? Really doing?’ Not just, ‘How are they functioning within the corporation?’ I think we’re going to see more of that because the pandemic really scared people — and employees started to react and resign and wonder, ‘How am I valued within my own organization?’”

Now that we’re learning to live with the pandemic and its new realities, Luster says organizations can and should place greater focus on health leadership. And it starts with bringing in leaders who are on board. He wrote a white paper on this subject, and recently also sat down to discuss how organizational leadership and health leadership are at a necessary intersection when it comes to employee mental health.

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Employee mental health at the organizational level

Luster recommends organizations model their approach after L.E.A.D., a concept for training leaders from the American Psychiatric Association. According to Luster, L.E.A.D. can help businesses embrace better processes for employee mental health during harsh times. It focuses on four areas:


Leaders set the tone and culture of an organization, and this may have more to do with soft skills than has been acknowledged. According to Luster’s white paper, the importance of reassuring employees during turbulent times is an important part of helping them feel in control.

Showing empathy in chaotic and precarious times is key. “Not all leaders are comfortable going there. That was the old suite of leaders — the don’t-show-weakness kind because you need to have that guy-in-charge mentality. But that’s not what people needed inside of the pandemic. They wanted to know, ‘Are we going to be all right?’ The empathic leader is relational and gets in there and talks with their employees,” Luster explains.

Luster goes so far as to suggest that empathy may become the new superpower in management. “If empathy is not in your inventory, then you will be moved out at some point,” he predicts. “We’re way past the McDonald’s-ization of America. That was a way of performing for a while, but now we’re looking at who is doing the performing under sometimes volatile conditions. Now we understand something different, perhaps because of having been enmeshed in a form of collective trauma. We understand the who.”

The point of view, he adds, has shifted toward leaders who have the potential to effect organizational change.

Effective communication

Really dialoguing with employees and probing the kind of mental health support they need is what separates effective leaders from ineffective leaders. As the saying goes, people don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses.

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So, how do you avoid being in that latter camp? Listen.

“It’s really dialing down into listening, and not listening to respond but listening to understand,” Luster says. “I think a lot of leaders need some help here. Listening in this way can be a new stretch for leadership but a pivotal one for the health of their employees.”

And yet pushing through the discomfort to learn new listening skills (often called “active listening” in corporate trainings) can help improve workplace productivity and build confidence and self-efficacy in your employees.

Adapt to change

Agility is all the buzz in corporate America right now. The need to pivot and address unpredictability with speed and flexibility — all with a largely hybrid workforce — is pressing companies to flex like never before. While this may seem like largely an external or output-driven shift, Luster says the real work for leaders starts on the inside.

“The ability to adapt as an organization, that’s very introspective,” Luster says. “This is especially true when it comes to employees’ mental health. It often just means meeting employees where they are and asking them what they need.”

Again, Luster uses the pandemic as a reference point. “Leaders had to be willing to modify their leadership style. Not everything works. This put leaders to the test. We saw what they were made of during this trial-by-fire period,” he says. Two anecdotes illustrate what he means.

“Fast-food drive-throughs and restaurants were packed during the pandemic, and I could see the stresses on employees that told me there was nothing available to address their mental health needs,” Luster says. “Their leaders are taught to produce, and so when customers were stressed or complaining, they weren’t able to flex and adapt to help their employees through that. They were focused on output instead.”

In another setting, a health clinic, Luster observed people packed into a small lobby. “The manager was communicative, ‘touching’ everyone in some way with questions like, ‘Do you feel like you need a break right now? How are you doing? Can I help you?’ It wasn’t, ‘Hey, we’ve got a number of people in here, we’ve got to step it up.’ This manager took ownership of the situation and helped his team by first making sure they were OK, showing them care so that they could feel confident in helping deal with the customers,” Luster recalls.

Double down on access to care

When it comes to employee mental health, making sure your employees have access to the wellness resources they need is critical.

According to the most recent University of Phoenix Career Optimism Index® released for 2022, nearly half (48%) of Americans say they need support and resources for managing their mental health and well-being needs. What’s more, 44% report they have actively sought out mental health resources to help them manage their work-related stressors.

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“University of Phoenix did a good job with this [by offering to its employees] the Ginger app, a work mental health resource that offers access to behavioral health coaching, therapy and self-care resources from the privacy of a smartphone,” Luster says. “We need more of that kind of preventive programming.”

Why? Because in the end, we’re not just human beings but we’re humans being. And the pandemic was the great equalizer, a stark look at how threatening things could really get. “There’s a higher vigilance now regarding what it means to be cared for. Thus, the equation for any leader and any business is: If I don’t take care of the people I’ve got, then really I’m undercutting this organization because there will be casualties.”

Taking advantage of lessons learned may help shape the workplace culture in a positive way.

“The importance of what society has learned over the past several years regarding mental health among employees ensures that many cannot turn back now, [and] doing so may only further the risk of leaders losing their valuable human capital,” Luster says. “Instead, [leaders] should open up better pathways for addressing mental health.”

That, in the end, is what’s known to leaders and employees alike as a win-win situation. 



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