How and why should managers support workplace mental health?
It seems the world is finally waking up to issues surrounding workplace mental health and support – this is fantastic news. There have been a number of articles in the news this last year about workplace mental health, such as this latest one published today (26th October) on BBC news, in which Chief Executive of mental health charity Mind laments that “Opportunities are missed to prevent poor mental health and ensure that employees who may be struggling get the support they need.” This he suggests is because “in many instances employers simply don’t understand the crucial role they can play, or know where to go for advice and support.”
Lets face it. This is probably true. The majority of us, lets be honest, could be doing more. The World Health Organisation describes mental health as ‘a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community’. Last week more than ever, the world heard how many of us aren’t doing enough to look after our own mental health or that of our employees and colleagues. We learnt that it is literally costing us. Last week saw a story about a CEO’s positive and accepting response to an employee’s request to take time off to look after her mental health going viral. It was also World Mental Health Day. The majority of commenters applauded this response though some were sceptical.
For the sceptical among you, here are some of the reasons to take care of your employee’s mental health from an employer point of view. Supporting employee well-being is not only the right thing to do, it makes clear business sense.
• More than 3/10 people have experienced mental health issues in employment. Workplace mental health issues like anxiety and stress as well as more complex conditions like depression are common. (Employee Outlook: focus on mental health in the workplace report, CIPD)
• Mental Health issues are a major cause of long-term sickness leave from work. (CIPD Absence Management survey). 70 million working days are lost each year due to mental ill health. However presenteeism (turning up for work unwell or when unable to function well) can cost businesses twice as much. (The Mental Health Foundation)
• The kicker: Workplace mental health problems cost UK employers £26 billion each year, averaging £1,035 per employee (Research by Centre Forum Commission). Others put this figure even higher – £70 -100 bn (The Mental Health Foundation) or according to the latest Thrive at Work report – a cost of £99bn to the UK economy.
As well as the big impact on individuals, poor workplace mental health has serious repercussions for employers – increased staff turnover, employee burnout, decreased motivation and lost productivity to name just four. It’s costing us in many ways and positive, proactive steps need to be taken.
What is being done?
Already over 500 companies have signed the ‘Time for Change’ Employer pledge to show their commitment to an action plan to encourage employees to talk about workplace mental health issues and train line managers in how to deal with it. Is your company amongst them?
This year The Marketing Society has also joined the fight to remove the stigma around mental health in the workplace with their Marketing for Change initiative. Not satisfied with just using their organisation and communications skills to influence customer behaviour, marketers are now putting their considerable talents to the cause of opening up discussion around mental health and helping brands create a more supportive working environment. This is part of TMS’s ‘Brave’ agenda, for which they held the ‘Being Bold Around Mental Health’ event back in April. Inspirational stuff.
What can you do?
Maybe your company isn’t there yet, or it’s too small to dedicate much time to such initiatives – fair enough. However there ARE things you can do as a manager to support colleagues and direct reports with workplace mental health issues.
Stress is predictably the number one most common workplace mental health issue. Pressure is part of our everyday working lives and can boost productivity, stress however is limiting. Good line management can help manage and prevent unnecessary stress. The best managers:
1. Provide staff with clear objectives, feedback and support.
2. Proactively manage conflict when it occurs to create and maintain positive working environments.
3. Take time to listen and empathise with team members suffering mental health issues (or indeed any relevant issue).
4. If employees are consistently working long hours and you can see this having a negative impact on their performance or well-being, take steps to establish why it’s happening and consider what might be done to address the issue. Have they been given an unmanageable workload? Is the work beyond their skillset? Could someone else step in and assist? Could you provide guidance and unblock them if they’re stuck? Is the issue related to their relationship with other members of the team? Could there be bullying behaviours?
5. We typically spend a lot of time with our co-workers, and though many try to hide individual difficulties in the workplace, there may be signs that they are struggling. Notice differences, for example:
– A chatty person starts to become withdrawn
– They mention that they’re having trouble sleeping
– They have increasing difficulty making decisions
– They’re showing anxiety about things they’re not normally anxious about
– They’re beginning to lack focus and drive
– They’re approaching tasks from a place of negativity.
This of course needs to be dealt with sensitively – a quiet one-to-one word or check in, an offer of support, a meeting to discuss their workload or to re-engage and assure them that their contribution is important – if you can support them early, you may avoid a later snowball effect.
There are a number of excellent resources to guide you if you are trying to help, such as this resource from Mind which gives more detail on how to support staff dealing with a mental health problem. There are also plenty of positive stories out there of how action from a line manager has helped an employee keep going and work through their issues. Time to Change has collected together many inspiring personal stories from people who are overcoming their mental health challenges – many of them thanks to a proactive, empathetic manager. Here’s a snippet of two powerful stories – you can read them in full on the Time to Change website.
“My line-manager started to notice I wasn’t doing too well – I tend to wear exhaustion quite visibly under my eyes! – and asked me how things were going. I chatted and he listened and I cried and he took me seriously. Eventually we spoke to my department’s head who instantly said: “We’ll do whatever we can to make things easier for you at work. Shall we have a think?”
Unbelievable. Not only was I being given the opportunity to alter my working day to make things easier, I was doing it as a part of a team. During a time when thinking clearly was the hardest thing in the world, my boss was sharing the responsibility of coming up with a solution and not leaving it up to me.
The solution we came to was me working from home on Tuesdays. It might sound like a simple thing, but I think Tuesdays have saved my life.”
She [my manager] has been incredible in supporting me over the last 18 months and this has been a significant factor in my recovery.
I didn’t want any fuss, any adjustments or anyone else to know. All I wanted was for Ruth to be aware of my situation because I felt that my behaviour at work was becoming obviously different; I wasn’t joining in conversations, I was struggling to focus and my time-keeping became erratic.
Fortunately Ruth understood and always made sure that decisions about my work were made in partnership….She took the pressure off me without altering my workload or treating me differently to the rest of the team.
Feeling inspired? Remember you could play a significant part in a team member’s route to recovery through an empathetic and considered response. We hope more and more managers will fight to remove the stigma around mental health issues and provide support when it’s needed.
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