• Opinion: A manager’s guide to supporting staff with mental ill-health

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    We all have mental health and sometimes, like our physical health, it can become unwell. Mental health is just as important as physical health – and tending to our invisible ailments needs the same level of intentionality as a visible illness. But, what should managers do to make sure their employees’ mental health is taken care of?

    According to MIND one in six of us report experiencing a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week as we navigate the lows and unexpected things in life. We experience negative emotions arising from situations like relationship breakdowns, bereavement, and the pressures and stresses from work which can all have a great impact on our emotional well-being.

    Often, when we think of mental ill-health, we think of conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, or clinical depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and whilst these will affect some in the workplace, for the vast majority of us, the term often denotes the fluctuations in our emotional welfare. It’s the role of managers to make sure that employees feel comfortable in their place of work and are made to feel part of the team even if their mental health is suffering.

    It’s imperative for managers to be proactive when it comes to managing and supporting staff with mental health issues, so here are some steps to take when you start to spot the first signs that an employee is struggling with the pressures of everyday life:

    1. Begin an honest and open dialogue – You’ve noticed a change in their behaviour. Perhaps they’ve become irritable, or withdrawn, or their standard of work has dropped. They’re not meeting deadlines like they used to. First up: start an honest conversation. “I’ve noticed you haven’t been yourself recently, are you okay? Is there anything on your mind?” Everyone has an inbuilt need to feel seen, known and valued and your reaching out as their manager to engage them with a sincere “how are you really doing?” will communicate real care and an opportunity to be heard. Start where the person is at, listen, and ask them what they need.

    2. Have regular catch-ups – make it a habit to check in with your staff to see how they’re doing – not just in terms of work capability – but about what else might be affecting them internally, or how they’re doing in other areas of their life. Establishing open lines of communication, and regularly too, will form an amazing foundation of trust so if they go through a distressing situation that affects their mental health, they know they can comfortably approach you without embarrassment or shame. Getting to know your staff will help you to recognise when something is not quite right and you can then offer support at the earliest opportunity. It’s good to promote the idea that talking about feelings isn’t a sign of weakness too; it’s part of taking charge of your well-being and doing what you can to stay healthy.

    3. Review work capacity – emotional strain resulting from issues outside of the work place might mean a colleague is not able to function and complete tasks to the same standard as before, so extend grace to them and focus on what they can achieve rather than what they can’t. As a line manager, discuss and introduce adjustments to their workload, and be open to some creativity in terms of what they have the head space to do.

    Of course, don’t offer what is not possible according to company policy, but to ensure that reasonable adjustments are made so that as few barriers remain to their recovery as possible. This could include changing their working hours or patterns of work; giving them a place to go for their break; modifying sickness absence triggers and performance targets. Consideration for a person’s situation goes a long way and will in the long run contribute to increased employee loyalty. Kindness, when someone is passing through deep emotional waters, is not easily forgotten.

    4. Keep a paper trail – it’s a good idea to log what you agree together, so if there’s a change in personnel, your replacement can easily get up to speed with how the employee is doing. It is also important to regularly review any adjustments and amend as appropriate. A ‘wellness and recovery plan’ is an excellent way to outline triggers, warning signs and information on what will keep the person well – which really helps if signs of emotional issues are brewing so line managers can proactively put things in place to stop the situation from escalating. This paper trail can be invaluable evidence of the support that has been provided should this be required at a later stage.

    5. Be flexible – Mental health issues can flare up and seem difficult in the moment, but they are often not on-going, rather episodes where people need support before they fully recover and gain their equilibrium again.

    6. Create a culture of awareness – ensure resentment does not have any space to seed and grow – especially when others might have to temporarily take on more responsibility whilst a colleague recovers and takes steps to manage their mental health via counselling, medication or other intervention. The workplace needs to be target driven, but this doesn’t exclude it from also being a place of community where compassion for employees is important too.

    7. Communicate which mental health services are available – encourage people to seek advice and support from their GP or if your organisation has an Employee Assistance Programme it may be able to arrange counselling. As a manager, you should seek advice/support from organisations such as MIND or your in-house occupational health practitioner, if appropriate.

    ‘Mental health’ doesn’t have to be a scary phrase. It is possible to create a culture of openness and support, especially when discussing feelings, so that whatever your staff goes through and whenever it happens, it doesn’t have to affect them or the business negatively in the long run.

    Paula Whelan

    Paula Whelan – Righttrack Learning