What Ted Lasso Can Teach Us About Mental Health in the Workplace

Leah Shepherd By Leah Shepherd March 30, 2023

​Actor Jason Sudeikis plays Ted Lasso, the soccer coach on the popular TV series. (Apple TV+ Press Photo)

​Be like a goldfish, and you'll be happy, according to Ted Lasso, the professional soccer coach in Apple TV+'s feel-good comedy.

Why? Because goldfish have 10-second memories and never dwell on past mistakes and failures, Ted tells his team, AFC Richmond, after a difficult loss.

The cast of "Ted Lasso" visited the White House to participate in a press conference about mental health on March 20, after the third season of the show kicked off just a few days earlier. The show explores Ted's panic attacks after he spends decades bottling up trauma from his father's suicide when he was 16. Ted also struggles with an impending divorce from his wife and separation from his young son in the U.S. while he works in England. The show destigmatizes mental illness in a workplace setting, sweetened by comedy and Ted's folksy American witticisms.

"They are shining a light on an issue that needs a brighter light shone on it," said Michael Cohen, an attorney with Duane Morris in Philadelphia. "There's a great deal of work that needs to be done" because people are still uncomfortable disclosing their mental illness at work.

"People have anxiety about tasks. They have anxiety about a manager who yells at them. They have depression when they see their co-workers let go by the thousands," said Dan Pontius, president of Choose Mental Health, an Orem, Utah-based nonprofit focused on children's mental health. The show is "bringing real mental health issues into a fictional workplace, and it lets us talk about it in a safe environment."

Several characters besides Ted experience depression and anger, and they mismanage anxiety, said Jennifer Moss of Waterloo, Ontario, author of The Burnout Epidemic (Harvard Business Review Press, 2021) and Unlocking Happiness at Work (Kogan Page, 2016). "You can see someone externally and think they have everything managed, they are totally happy, they have this great relationship with people in their lives. They give off positivity that seems unshakeable, and yet underneath, there's a lot going on with people," she said.

Lessons for HR

Despite his internal sadness, Ted personifies optimism, positivity and empathy, traits that are paramount for HR professionals. "He is super inclusive. He makes sure he includes everybody, irrespective of level within the organization," Cohen said. The show highlights "the unending and unconditional and uncompromising kindness that he shows to everyone."

In his approachable way, Ted likes to say, "I appreciate you."  

[SHRM Resource Page: Mental Health]

Ted also hangs a big sign saying "Believe" in the locker room. He taps it when hoping to win a game or achieve a goal. "I think it's the lack of hope that comes and gets you. See, I believe in hope. I believe in belief," he says.

In season one, team morale at AFC Richmond isn't great because arrogant superstar Jamie Tartt bullies and belittles staff and teammates. Ted benches Jamie, who gets traded to another team for one season and then returns to AFC Richmond with more humility. The plotline shows how holding employees accountable for harassment and bullying can improve morale and productivity. Conversely, a lack of accountability for misconduct can create stress, burnout and turnover.

SHRM Resource Hub Page
Mental Health

Supportive Leadership

"Day-to-day, your supervisor probably influences your mental health more than your doctor," said Chia-Chia Chang, coordinator for partnership at the Office of Total Worker Health at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Washington, D.C. "We know that when supervisors have been trained on the key role that they play in influencing worker well-being, workers may report less stress and work/life conflict, better physical health and better sleep, as well as more commitment to the organization."

[SHRM Foundation: A Field Guide for Mental Health in Your Workplace: From Evaluation to Action]

In the show's third season, the team faces countless naysayers and insults in the media, so Ted takes them inside the putrid sewers of London. He shows them how letting the stinky things in life drain away makes us healthier—in the case of the sewer system, avoiding diseases like cholera. He encourages the players to help each other not get upset by trash talk. "Let anything we don't need flow right through," he says.

Ted emphasizes team unity and relying on one another for support. Many industries and companies are cutthroat and ruthlessly competitive, but that's not in Ted's nature. "For me, success is not about the wins and losses. It's about helping these young fellas be the best versions of themselves on and off the field," he says.

Initially, the team's owner, Rebecca Welton, is trying to "undercut Ted, so that he would be set up to fail constantly," Moss said. "Ted just showed resilience, but in many cases that wouldn't be the result. You'd see quitting. You'd see burnout. The more that they created alliances and showed their mutual benefit, and when they learned more about each other, it led to greater results. They had more success."

To forge a workplace culture of kindness, simple gestures like thank-you notes and regular check-ins with your staff can go a long way. One of Ted's hallmarks is "Biscuits with the Boss," where he brings homemade shortbread cookies to Rebecca each day.

As a manager, "if you're willing to let someone be autonomous, that doesn't mean you ignore them; that doesn't mean you don't give them goals and check in on them," Pontius said. "That's what the character Ted Lasso does. He's hands-on. He's in the middle of it. He's got a story for you. He's got an analogy. It's an excellent example of management where you are concerned and taking care of your staff."

That lesson can apply in any industry, location or organization size. As Ted says, "If you care about someone, and you got a little love in your heart, there ain't nothing you can't get through together."



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