How Mental Health Affects Your Team


As a society, we’ve started talking more openly about mental health, and this shift is finally starting to take place in the Dirt World, too. That's good for leaders, because ultimately your team’s mental health (and yours) can have a significant impact on your company’s bottom line.

Managing and leading people from a mental health perspective can be difficult.

Maybe some of your crew members are going through a rough time, and it's impacting their work. Maybe they're underperforming, or they've gotten to the point where they're a hazard to others on the jobsite. Maybe they still feel the need to maintain a tough-guy attitude instead of telling you what's wrong. Maybe you're not sure how to prioritize mental health or even have those conversations.

Whether it’s stress over a divorce, a child awaiting surgery, or something else, your team's personal lives impact their jobs. And so does yours. Jocko Willink offers his advice for helping your crew members and yourself stay well.

Build relationships

"Number on thing is that you've have a good enough relationship with your people that you can understand, that you can see and detect when there's something going on," Jocko says.

Now in a small company, it's easy to build those personal relationships. But what happens you've got 1,000 employees? You can't have an in-depth, personal relationship with each one or be around them enough to know when something's wrong. 

In that case, Jocko says, "Your team leaders have to understand that they are responsible for their seven people that they've got on their team. And they've gotta know them well enough to know that if Fred is acting strange, [the team leader can say] 'Hey Fred, what's going on? Is everything okay?'"

There's an old saying that, "The bridge of friendship can support the weight of truth." And that's exactly how it works between leaders and their crews, too. They may not be "friends" per se, but they should have a good enough relationship that crew members can open up to their leaders when they're struggling.

It's also important for you to take the time to equip your leaders to handle these situations. Tom the Foreman may be great at keeping projects on schedule, but that doesn't mean he's equipped or qualified to walk alongside a crew member who's having a life crisis. Give your leaders resources on mental health, and teach them the leadership skills they'll need to build those relationships. 

Cover and move

One of Jocko's laws of combat is cover and move. In combat, cover and move means that one person shoots at the bad guys while the other person moves to a better location. Then, the person who moved can turn around and shoot at the bad guys while their buddy gets to safety.

Cover and move works the same way when it comes to mental health. Let's say that foreman asks Fred what's wrong, and Fred says his daughter is really sick. The foreman says, "Okay, why don't you take Friday off? I know you've got to go to the hospital with her and go to her doctor's appointment. Why don't you go spend some time with her? We will cover for you."

Now could that be inconvenient for the crew? Yeah, probably. But you know what's inconvenient for Fred? Having a daughter who's sick and a boss who doesn't care. That's worse than inconvenient; it's demoralizing. It's soul-sucking. It's the kind of thing that will make Fred—who's your most experienced operator, by the way—hate his job and the company. 

Life happens, and we all need help to get through it at times. That's not weakness. That's living. If you were in Fred's shoes, what would you want your boss to do for you? Then make it happen.

Get that check engine light fixed

When the people reporting to you are stressed from grappling with personal issues, you can’t let the situation slide, hoping it will resolve itself.

“If the check engine light comes on in a car and you pull over to the service station and you get the engine serviced, what's going to happen to the car?” Jocko asks. It'll be fine. You can take it back on the highway and keep driving.

But if you ignore that check engine light and keep driving? "It's going to get destroyed. You'll destroy the engine," Jocko says. 

"People are like that," Jocko says. "If you see that check engine light on one of your people, you need to stop driving them so hard. Maybe they take an office job for a little while. Maybe they go in the field, because sometimes the office is more stressful than the field."

Look for ways that you can help your people and give them what they need. Maybe they need a change of pace or more flexibility at work to get through a tough season. Maybe the routine of their job calms them, and they just need their leader to check in more so they know someone cares.

Again, building relationships helps tremendously here, because that creates the framework for you to know your people well and determine what they need. And it also creates an open line of communication where you can ask them what they need. 

A note just for leaders

Leaders aren't immune to life. You and your leadership team will experience hardships, setbacks, and tough times just like everyone else. So it pays to make sure your leaders know who they can go to when they're having a tough time. 

Typically, that's going to be their direct supervisor. Just like crew members report to their foreman, the foreman can go to his or her boss. But what happens to the boss who's at the top of the heap—the person everyone ultimately reports to?

That person needs to have their own support network of trusted peers—such as other executives, board members, or mentors—who know them well and can approach them when their check engine light comes on. If you don't have this type of support network in place, it's time to get proactive and start building this network before a crisis comes along.


Your team's mental health affects everything they do at work. As a leader, you have a responsibility to manage and lead your team in a way that encourages their mental wellbeing. Here are three ways you can lead do that, according to Jocko:

  • Build relationships
  • Cover and move
  • Get that check engine light fixed

And remember to put a structure in place to help yourself and your leadership team maintain good mental health, too.

How to Create Unity Between the Field and the Office

How to Manage Your Personal Problems as a Leader →

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