Train managers to deal with mental health problems at work

Employers must deal with mental health problems at work by encouraging managers to start conversations with staff about the issue and helping them to spot the signs of ill health, argues Chris O’Sullivan.

On average, we spend one-third of our lives at work, so unsurprisingly it has a significant impact on our mental wellbeing. Relationships in the workplace are a vital part of this, and have been shown to have an important impact on job satisfaction, skills development, staff turnover, workplace morale, absenteeism and quality of life.

Having a good relationship with your manager has been found to protect against psychological health issues at work; however, worryingly, only 64% of employees in the UK reported the relationship between themselves and their managers as good or very good, while 13% reported relations as poor or very poor in Office for National Statistics figures for 2014.

Employers need to tackle this problem head on. Providing the right training for managers and encouraging them to start conversations about mental health and wellbeing is a good first step. Once they are properly equipped to discuss mental health with employees, they will also be able to spot the signs of distress more effectively. There are a number of ways this can be done.

Develop a culture of openness and awareness

The biggest barrier to managing stress and other mental health issues in the workplace is the reluctance of staff to disclose problems. In fact, 67% of people with mental health problems do not tell their employer because they worry about the reaction, according to the “Time to Change” public health campaign.

If employees don’t feel able to disclose issues, problems may only come to light later on, when more serious interventions are necessary. By creating a culture of openness around wellbeing, with awareness of mental health problems, employers can reduce stigma, make employees feel better supported, and encourage them to raise issues and concerns early before they develop into something more serious.

Managers can foster open communication in a number of ways:

  • Spend time with staff at all levels, and when doing so, model good communication behaviours, including talking about your own wellbeing.
  • Give people structured ways of enabling their thoughts, feelings and observations to be shared easily and regularly.
  • Praise people’s efforts.
  • Reward self-improvement by budgeting time and resources for management and personal development training.
  • Encourage “safe failure” by giving opportunities to try new things without significant consequences to the organisation. Create innovative environments for people to test new ideas and learn from failures as well as successes.
  • Support people’s independence. Employees want to feel in control of the work they do.
  • Upskill managers to offer support around mental health.
  • Managerial staff are often juggling a variety of tasks, as well as having the responsibility of making sure employees are happy and healthy. It can be a challenge to devote enough time towards line management, including supporting employee wellbeing, when urgent factors such as productivity targets might seem more pressing.

We need to do more, especially during hard times, to recognise that people management skills are the key to driving productivity. Consider investing in development work to help managers recognise signs of distress in themselves and colleagues so that they and the company can put strategies in place to support staff that are affected. It is also important to follow up with managers, to make sure they have taken the training on board and understand how to apply this in the day-to-day.

Make it clear that they are not expected to become experts in mental health or to handle problems alone – instead, they are there to recognise challenges, provide a positive and supportive first response to disclosure, and to signpost the support and resources available. It is also crucial not to penalise managers who have reduced productivity as a result of making adjustments for an employee, as their support will pay off in the long term.

Keep lines of communication open

If an employee does develop a mental health problem, it is important to maintain an open and meaningful dialogue. Employers can often feel reluctant to talk about these problems for fear of doing or saying the wrong thing, but it is important to know what support each individual values. Making sure there is a constant dialogue between the employee and their line manager will allow employers to strike the right balance between helping the employee to still feel productive and valued, without feeling they are overloaded.

This is more important than ever as the way we work is changing, with more people than before working remotely. In 2014, 4.2 million people (13.9% of the total workforce) were recorded as home workers – an increase from 2.9 million recorded in 1998, according to the Office for National Statistics. This means employers need to be more watchful than ever in ensuring they are talking to employees, wherever they are, especially those who they may not have regular face-to-face contact with.

The Mental Health Foundation has recently partnered with employee benefits experts Unum to help tackle the stigma of mental health in the workplace, and is calling on business leaders to safeguard the mental health of their employees at every stage, from prevention through to early intervention, and supporting a positive return to work. Together, we have produced tips and advice on effectively managing mental health in the workplace.

Chris O’Sullivan is programme lead, business development and engagement, at the Mental Health Foundation.

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