Wellbeing and Mental Health in the Workplace – from reactive to pro-active

24 August 2017

In the fourth of a series of 5 blogs, Rob talks about the need to help managers who want to pro-actively support people with mental health needs in the workplace.

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One of the most enjoyable aspects of my interim management role was the chance to provide training to people outside the Mental Health/Social Care sphere. In the past year I’ve delivered Mental Health Awareness Training for Managers to several commercial and educational organisations, as well as on behalf of a County Council training their own staff from non-social care departments. It became clear very quickly when offering this training, that campaigns like Time to Change have been hugely successful in both increasing awareness of Mental Health Issues and reducing the stigma around disclosure. This is fantastic to see, but this success also brings the need for the ‘next steps’. What do you do as a manager when an employee discloses a Mental Health issue? What steps can you take? What can you do as a manager to create an environment in which staff can be supported to be pro-active around their own Mental Health?

It is an uncomfortable truth that much of the training around Mental Health for Managers is focussed on legalities: how to document concerns, what constitutes a reasonable adjustment, what support managers are required to offer etc. There is no doubt that managers need to have a solid knowledge of how to manage people who have disclosed Mental Health conditions from a technical/HR perspective, but my experience is that this is not the support that managers feel is lacking. What managers are crying out for is ways to support valued staff to manage their mental health, so crises don’t occur and people can be happy at work.  They want this training to be practical, effective and something that can be introduced into a team without singling people out who have particular needs.

On the first of these training session I did for managers recently, the need for this sort of support was so great in the room that I threw out virtually the entire agenda on the spot to give people what they were after. Luckily I’d brought a few examples of tools managers can use along with me in case they were useful. We looked at a few tools, including the Working/Not Working, which I focussed on in an earlier blog, but the tool which had the biggest impact on the day was the Stress and Support tool.

The stress and support tool is, like many good things, deceptively simple. People using the tool need to:

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  • Think about what makes them stressed at work being as specific and honest as possible.
  • Think about how they behave when they are stressed. This stage is very important as people do all sorts of different things when they are stressed. Some don’t communicate, some become angry or irritable, others look for distractions or something different to do which they feel more comfortable with (this one is one of my personal favourites!)
  • Think about what they can do personally in this situation. If for example I get stressed being late with pieces of work, what can I do to make sure this doesn’t happen?
  • Think about what others can do to help. In the above example, can I ask my line manager to check with me how on-going pieces of work are going regularly in supervision?

It’s worth noting at this point that you don’t need to be too technical about what stress is – most people are comfortable using stress as a catch all term for other things like anxiety, feeling low or panicked, but if another word feels more appropriate then that’s fine.  The important thing is going through the process of identifying causes, behaviours, your own response and the response you need from others.

So why did this tool prove so popular with the managers I was training? I wasn’t entirely sure, so I decided to ask them. Here is a summary of what they said.

  • The tool feels supportive and can be used well before there is a problem. Completing the stress and support tool can be part of someone’s induction, simultaneously showing that the employee’s wellbeing is important to the organisation and also giving others a valuable insight into how to support the employee.
  • The tool clearly emphasises the role the employee can play in maintaining their own wellbeing. This is useful on two counts. Firstly it is good for us all to reflect on what we can do in order to help us feel better. Secondly, it gives something for the manager to use as a starting point for discussion and support.
  • The tool helps managers avoid mistakes when trying to help. Basic, but important. When I am not feeling great and maybe a bit overwhelmed, I am easily distracted by new projects. A well-meaning manager might interpret this as enthusiasm and offer me the chance to do more. This would probably be the last thing either of us needed!
  • Having a tool to use gives you a process to follow. Nearly all the managers in the room said that they felt anxious when someone disclosed a mental health issue. Having a tool available to use immediately increases the confidence of the manager, giving them time to think.
  • You can use this for new staff and for established staff. Spending half an hour in a team meeting, working in pairs completing your Stress and Support tool is easy, inclusive and probably quite good fun. Nothing beats a good off-load about what drives you potty!

I said in my first blog of the week that I think being consistently able to contribute to decision making and for this contribution to be valued is the single biggest factor in workplace wellbeing. A pro-active approach to wellbeing with tools like ‘Stress and Support’ included reinforces the knowledge that you are valued at work, through making sure that you, your colleagues and your manager are in the best position to maintain your wellbeing and deal with problems as effectively as possible.

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