An objection I am often faced with when trying to promote mental health education in the workplace is the worry that if we talk about mental health and educate in the workplace, it will open up a ‘can of worms’ and make it a free for all for anyone to go off sick. The point I always try to make is if someone wants to play the system- they will play the system- whether they use mental health reasons or not they will play the system anyway because of their intent. But by educating around mental health it can make all the difference for someone that is struggling.
I am writing this article to demonstrate the impact line managers have on an individual’s recovery journey and the important part they play. And therefore why, it is so important, that anyone working with people should have a certain level of education around mental health.
The examples that I will be sharing are all real but I will be doing so anonymously.
1.      Take the time to find out why the person may have acted in the way they did– I have two very similar examples whereby a member of staff just ‘lost it’ because when they got to the office another member of staff was sat in their chair; and another example where a new recruit was sat at their desk. For one of these people this signified their breaking point; the start of asking for help, and the very beginning of their road to recovery. For the other, this signified the start of disciplinary proceedings in the workplace because of their irrational behaviour. Both of these individuals were struggling with their mental health and had done for some time. Neither had seeked help and support and had not mentioned it in the workplace. Both had reached breaking point and for each to find someone else sitting at their desk or in their chair was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The outcomes for these two individuals was very different. Always pause and consider why someone may be acting differently, irrationally or in a way deemed unacceptable try and find out why first.
2.      Show genuine care and interest for someone who is off work because of their mental health. Be conscious of not hurrying the person back to work– you may be doing this subconsciously too. You may be trying to encourage the person that they “won’t need so long off” by being optimistic. But that could be seen as a suggestion they need to get back into work as quickly as possible. While you may want to try and gauge the absence please don’t ask for a return date. The individual may feel pressured to give a sooner date, and even if not, as that date draws closer it could start to build up anxiety. Which in turn could slow down that recovery process. All it is likely to do is prolong the absence. It may be a short term gain in that person returning to work sooner but if they are not well enough to be back in work the long term impact is they will likely be off again in the near future.
3.      Education– not just for managers but awareness for the whole team. As a manager it is really important you have some understand of mental health and the issues people can face. We all have mental health and any one of us can suffer with mental ill health at any time. By having an understanding it allows genuine compassion. Such as understanding that severe anxiety can be as disabling as a severe stroke with long term consequences when comparing to a physical illness. Colleague remarks such as “you’re always bloody crying” or “she’s off her rocker did you see how she reacted…” are usually not out of malice but can still have a negative effect on an individual’s recovery regardless of the intent. It is therefore so important that managers and their teams have an overall awareness of mental health and mental illness to better support each other and enable working environments where all people can flourish.
4.      Be consistent and stick to what you have agreed. It sounds like a really simple and obvious point to make but I have seen and heard of numerous examples where this is not the case. And not always the managers fault but of the pressures placed upon them and the culture that exists in the workplace. For someone suffering with their mental health, stability is always a good thing and can really support the recovery journey. With added pressures on everyone in the workplace it may just be an ask to stay on for an extra half hour to the phased return that was agreed to help with the workload that day. While the manager may have genuinely posed it as a question where “no” was an acceptable response; someone suffering with their mental health may struggle to say no because of the guilt they may already be feeling for not ‘doing their bit.’ It results in them doing more than they expected or planned to, it may be too much, it may cause anxiety that they may be asked to do more the next day too. The result is a step back in that recovery journey. Again the message here is just stick to what has been agreed and don’t push the boundaries whether intentional or not. Unless of course it is with mutual consent.
Mental Health Awareness week also falls into this point. It is a great opportunity to highlight the support that is available all year round such as existing EAPs and spending some time on building knowledge. But “don’t offer a fruit bowl in the staff room and think you’ve done your bit.” Or say to the team you can talk to me any time when the other 51 weeks of the year you’re not very approachable. It is all about consistency in your message and ensuring your actions consistently match the words you say. Having a manager who is consistent leads to trust. And working for someone trusted means the person is more likely to open up and seek support early on. This is huge in terms of the recovery process
5.      Consider your own mental well-being and state of mind before your interactions. If you’re feeling stressed or anxious that could come across in your communications. We are all people and managers are just as susceptible to mental ill health as anyone. But the impact on a member of staff who is also struggling, could be a slowed down recovery process. Being calm and approachable is often all that is needed in a manager for someone to feel they’re much more able to cope with a return to work or remain in work. Or likely to come back sooner. Self care is so important and having that awareness of your own mental well-being is essential before you start to look after the mental well-being of others. Familiarise yourself with what support is available for you as a line manager too.
Naivety also falls into this category- having that self awareness. One manager told their team member to “cheer up and go grab yourself a bun from the staffroom and you’ll feel loads better”. A completely innocent remark but to the person who struggled to get out of bed that morning being told a bun would make it alright just reaffirmed her thoughts that no-one would understand what she was going through. And added to the guilt she was already feeling about why she had a reason to feel like that anyway.
Work is such a large part of our lives and we spend so much of our time in work. It is essential that the education is available to ensure a supportive workplace for anyone that may be struggling with their mental health. All aspects of our life impact our mental well-being but there is a responsibility on employers given such a large proportion of our time is spent in work. I wanted to share the above and hope that anyone working with people or leading a team can relate. Even if this helps just one manager either adapt their approach or continue to do the things where they are really having a positive impact, it could make all the difference in someone’s recovery journey.