Anita Douglas offers advice on how managers can truly understand and support those members of their team who may be suffering from mental health issues – and what signs to look out for in the first place.
So far in this series we’ve looked at the importance of resilience, strategies to develop it and some of the actions you can take to build a supportive environment for your teams.
The measures we have highlighted so far are effectively all preventative measures, designed to lower the likelihood of work-based stress triggering a mental health problem.
As a qualified occupational psychologist, my preference is always to do as much as we can with businesses to install effective preventative measures. However, I do find myself increasingly advising concerned leaders on how to handle situations that involve poor mental health.
It’s important that, as a leader, you are prepared to deal with someone for whom those preventative actions measures don’t work. You need to be comfortable and open to dealing with someone on your team who may be experiencing a mental health problem, without fear of clumsy euphemisms or awkward silences.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Be aware of the signs
People with mental health problems handle them in different ways and, in some cases, there may be no outward signs. Generally though, someone who knows that person will observe changes in their established behaviour. These might be:
- Withdrawal – they become less likely to engage one-to-one or as part of a wider team
- Loss or lack of motivation – reduced ability to focus on and deliver tasks or activities
- Reduced output – lower productivity or a reduction in the quality of their work
- Changes in mood – uncharacteristic mood or tone when interacting with colleagues
- Reduced organisation – being late for meetings, inability to organise or plan
- Changes in self-management – manifesting itself in a number of ways; reduced physical exercise, increased alcohol consumption or smoking, change in eating habits
- Visibly stressed or carrying an uncharacteristically negative outlook
2. Seek to understand
Because there aren’t always obvious signs that someone is in difficulty, it’s so important that the environment and culture you create for your staff makes them feel empowered to talk openly about their problem (see my last blog for some thoughts on what you can do to help this) and come to you to discuss it.
If you suspect there may be a problem, it’s important to handle it in the right way. Find somewhere suitable (private and quiet) to talk to the individual and use direct language to express what has given you cause for concern, especially if it relates to their work performance.
Then, be prepared to listen. Let them do the talking and affirm your understanding to them as they do so.
Make sure your body language reflects the fact that you’re open to understanding their challenges and repeat things back where necessary to show them you have understood. If you need to clarify anything, such as what the work stressors are or what support they need, you should do so with direct, open questions without overlaying any of your own judgement or bias.
Remember, it is not your role to diagnose or decide what is the best intervention for that individual.
3. Be positive
If someone has taken the step to talk to you, the chances are they have done so with trepidation. While poor mental health issues no longer carry the stigma they once did, it’s still a leap of faith to open up about the problem to your manager. Concerns of confidentiality, job safety and being treated differently are all likely to play on the mind.
Once the individual has confided in you, make sure that you immediately allay those concerns. Be clear that you will hold the information in confidence and be explicit if there are others who need to be informed, in line with the policies that your business has on this.
Give them reassurance that you will work with them to develop a plan to help them manage the problem at work and that they have your support.
Make sure they know that your door is always open.
4. Create a plan
Work with the individual to come up with a personal plan that works for them. This should be focused on the person and their role, rather than the problem and detail things like:
- Stressors or triggers at work
- Work impacts
- Mitigating actions
- Support measures (either within the business or externally)
- Timescales for review
You should look to agree an appropriate timeframe with them to review the measures you have put in place that gives suitable time for them to take effect but that also doesn’t leave it too long. I advocate regular check-ins or catch-ups with all of your team but especially those who have had the courage to talk to you about poor mental health.
5. Get support for you
Chances are you are in your role because you are a great leader, not a mental health expert.
So make yourself aware of the sources of support you can turn to both within and external to your business. There is plenty of advice available for managers who want to improve their knowledge and understanding. For example, you can access resources from public bodies like the NHS or charities such as Mind as well as those who specialise in supporting organisations with mental health.
6. Consider what support your business can offer those with poor mental health
There’s a real divide starting to open up between businesses that support their employees’ mental health and wellbeing… and those that don’t.
For example, in larger, forward-thinking businesses, it is now not uncommon to find:
- Mental health first aiders, whose role it is to act as a ‘first response’ for employees
- Line manager training
- Special phone lines or on-site appointments offering counselling and advice
- Access to detailed information, videos and downloads on how to deal with mental health problems, both for those experiencing them and their colleagues
As leader, you should explore these and options like these. It is in your gift to be able to offer the necessary support to individuals suffering with mental health problems within your business.
I hope over the course of this blog series I’ve helped you to understand a little bit more about resilience and supporting mental health problems in the workplace. Please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to discuss your organisation or find out more.