Six ways to manage mental health in the workplace

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When we run courses for organisations around the country we find that there is a real thirst for knowledge among managers about how to support people suffering from mental health problems. Sickness absence and presenteeism related to poor mental health are ever increasing and we often struggle to understand the nature of these illnesses and the associated behaviours. Managers sometimes walk on egg shells and lack the confidence to effectively engage people who may be struggling. At worst this leads to denial that a problem exists, promotes stigmatising behaviours and delays the accessing of effective support. The stock answer is to send people to HR and to offload the problem. HR professionals often receive very good training and are experienced in dealing with these cases and will doubtless provide good support, but daily contact is with line managers who will still need to provide workplace support. Here are six points to help:

1. Understand what mental health means

The term ‘mental health’ means different things to different people. Our mental wellbeing can be quite poor without having a diagnosis of a serious mental health disorder. Long term stress can lead to Anxiety and Depression (two of the most common mental health disorders). The way we feel about ourselves and what is happening in our lives is critical to the maintenance of self-esteem and confidence, both important components of our mental health. You don’t have to have a diagnosis to have poor mental health and anyone can be affected.

2. Don’t Judge

Mental health problems affect us all at some point and sometimes this comes about through life events or the cumulative effects of stress. You may be lucky that you have never been in this situation, but don’t judge others by your own experiences. Until you have experienced poor mental wellbeing you will never really understand. People who have, are far more empathetic. Note that; someone with a serious, diagnosed mental health condition can have good mental wellbeing on a daily basis and can be very productive, although people with diagnosed conditions are often subjected to stigmatising behaviour.

3. Engage with people in difficulty

There is nothing worse than the feeling of isolation or despair. It may not be related to work but it could be. Taking the time to talk to people who appear unwell can really help. Talking is always productive. Beware though, if you think the conversation could open up or your intention is to understand the problem in detail then pick your time. Plan what you will say and how you might respond if the person opens up. Listen lots, take the time to understand and agree a way forward. This will probably mean encouraging the person to get help from HR, the employee support scheme or it may be professional help from a GP that is needed. Be gentle, be supportive, make time. Be prepared to be frustrated, this is never easy!

4. Remember the Iceberg.

What you see in the office is only a part of the story and everyone has a story. What you see may be the tip of the iceberg; underneath the waterline there may be a whole raft of complex factors that you know nothing about. People often take the stress from their workplace home with them but they also bring home to work! Always be mindful that what you are seeing may be more complicated than it seems

5. There is no silver bullet

Mental health problems present in different ways in different people, no two people will have the same symptoms. This is a complex area and it is not at all unusual for people to be suffering with more than one type of mental health condition at the same time. There is consequently no silver bullet that you can use to fix the situation but there are general rules. Listen and understand the problem, if it is really serious then act immediately and get people the support they need urgently. Remember not to judge people by your own standards (this is a common mistake) encourage people to get professional help where this is needed and make them aware of the many self-help strategies that they can use to help with their condition.

6. Remember your boundaries

Supporting people in distress can be very challenging. Sometimes we have very close working relationships with the people we manage and we may very well socialise with them out of work too. If you are trying to help someone, try and establish some boundaries. If you don’t this will take up your time out of work too, it will frustrate you and can cause friction in relationships. It is very easy to take on other people’s stress in addition to your own, so beware of this threat and where possible keep work problems in work. You may think that you haven’t done much to help, but believe me, people in difficulty really appreciate the small gestures of support, but they also notice their absence!!

Learn more about how you can learn to help

Author: Richard Dorney

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