black woman leader smiling, people in background showing happiness at work

3 Covert Mental Health Hurdles Every Leader Needs to Understand for Happiness at Work

Sneaky mental health hurdles lurk in the shadows of our everyday lives. They hide in simple work tasks. They enshroud many social situations. We gravitate toward them in habitual stress responses. Yet they secretly sabotage our happiness at work and in life. They even threaten productivity and profit. I wrote about how this happens in my latest article at Entrepreneur.

In this post, I’m diving deeper into each and offering some practical solutions.

We often don’t recognize these covert challenges as mental health issues at all. They’re not recognized by the DSM-5*. This makes them undiagnosable issues that are near impossible to treat medically. The absence of diagnosis needn’t equate to complacent hopelessness, though. In fact, it shouldn’t. There is power in awareness and proactive measures when it comes to mental health.

We compromise our happiness at work when we’re unaware of how these mental health hurdles affect ourselves and others.

1. Social media addiction

Social media use can spin out of control because it hijacks the reward system in our brains. It’s an almost universal necessity at work but often distracts us more than it actually helps. Worse, excessive social media use contributes to depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. This becomes a downward spiral of inefficiency and reduced happiness at work.

Action Tip: Beat social media at its own game

Social media platforms’ success is reliant on the manipulation of human brains. Research shows they use the same processes as addiction to gambling, nicotine, and cocaine. These are habit-altering tools with the capacity to deplete our energy and happiness.

Instead of handing over our power to this seeming inevitability – what if we made it work to our advantage? Gamify not using social media by setting up a reward program for your staff (or yourself). Even if socials are a must for your business, there are workarounds to reduce negative outcomes.

Train your people / yourself to only log in for scheduled periods and with time limits. Create an incentive for every hour NOT engaged with social media during the workday. Give some bonus ‘paid time off.’ Award fun prizes such as movie tickets. If you want to offer something more supportive of mental health, give gift certificates for yoga or massage.

2. Gray area drinking

Society paints a picture of alcohol use in black and white. People are either alcoholics or ‘normal’ drinkers. This is a myth. In fact, most alcohol misuse has nothing to do with addiction.

Nine in 10 adults who drink too much alcohol are not alcoholics or alcohol dependent.


Your employees are likely teetering on the edge of a slippery slope when it comes to drinking. And the way you lead could be the nudge that sends them plummeting. A 2019 study found that employees feel obligated to participate in employer- or supervisor-initiated drinking events.

It’s a wasted effort to try separating everyone into neatly defined boxes when it comes to alcohol use. Instead, empower yourself and your staff by normalizing substance-free socializing and stress solutions.

Action Tip: Try going dry

Stigma about why people choose not to drink (Is she an alcoholic? Is he a stick-in-the-mud?) can be daunting for those who want to connect without imbibing. In my own 30-year experience of gray area drinking, I often wondered if my habit was unhealthy. I avoided exploring this for a long time because I was afraid of being labeled, judged, and left out.

There are ways to support your staff without anyone feeling ostracized. They will reap the rewards of the following suggestions, whether returning to the office or continuing remote work.

  • Encourage meeting walks in nature.
  • Organize social luncheons that include a fun teambuilding activity.
  • Create opportunities for meaningful conversation and organic connection.
  • Launch a no-questions-asked sober-curious challenge or book group. Encourage attendance by using a lunch-and-learn type model. Ensure that at least one member of your leadership team participates. (I recommend any of these titles: Sober Curious; The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober; This Naked Mind; The Alcohol Experiment.) 

The point is to create a workplace culture where alcohol use is not the norm. Provide empowering activities that aren’t steeped in company policy. Cultivate an environment that is supportive, inclusive, and judgment-free. This means it doesn’t matter the reason a person chooses not to drink. Whether they’re a struggling alcoholic, sober-curious, or whatever, they aren’t judged or shamed.

3. Burnout

Burnout is another mental health hurdle with murky undercurrents. The WHO (World Health Organization) declared it an “occupational phenomenon” in the 2019 revision of the International Classification of Diseases. However, it is explicitly not considered a medical condition. WHO also says it is “specifically… in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

In what world do our work lives not affect our personal lives, and vice versa? Many causes for burnout are not rooted in work issues per se, but they affect the workplace the same.

Like alcohol misuse, burnout is sneaky. It doesn’t usually jump out and slap you in the face with a definitive “you are burnt out.”

Instead, it’s usually a slow, progressive smolder. Months or years of mismanaged personal and professional stress often results in burnout. Most people experiencing burnout can’t pinpoint any specific trigger or transition point. They might seek out a medical explanation, only to receive a depression misdiagnosis. Because burnout is not a clearly delineated disorder, it’s often not recognized as the cause of mental anguish and exhaustion. I’ve experienced burnout both as an employee and as an entrepreneur. These were my experiences, as well.

Action Tip: Think outside the ‘one-size-fits-all’ box

There’s a lot of blanket advice out there for employers who want to end burnout in their organizations. The solution(s) that drive change will be more individualized.

For instance, it won’t help to force people to take vacation time if they’re ‘type A’ personalities. These go-getters are prone to work around the clock, ‘vacation’ or not. Likewise, you might provide soothing break rooms or gym memberships to help with stress management. This won’t make much difference when paired with people who don’t have good work-life balance skills. 

The first key is to truly understand your people (and yourself). Be curious, candid, and caring. Find out what triggers feelings of stress, overload, fear, languishing. What specific actions could you take, even in microsteps, to counteract these?

The second key is to establish trust. (This is vital for effective institution of the first key.) It requires an environment where employees and leaders feel safe to openly discuss taboo issues.

Happiness at work requires awareness, compassion, and connection

With all of these mental health hurdles, it’s imperative to go deeper than band-aid type fixes. 

link to 'Simple Habits for Success' self-paced mini course to improve calm, focused energy

Leading by example is important. It’s easier to foster a culture that doesn’t instill fear of judgment for these activities when the boss openly communicates. Share about your own personal engagement in downtime, self-care, and a well-balanced life. 

It’s equally valuable to take deliberate action. Make mental health practices accessible to everyone in your organization. Be open to deeply understand and support the nuances of your employees’ mental health. This is the catalyst for happiness at work.

*DSM-5: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition

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