Mental health remains a taboo subject in many organisations. Be honest, do you find it easier to ask someone with a bad back or a mental health problem how they are and what you can do to help them?
Every person and situation is different. For some people with poor mental health, the thought of a chat with their boss or colleagues is overwhelming and it’s important to remember this before we go steaming in. But, for many others, a timely conversation can really help.
This blog looks at some of the things that we might like to think about, as leaders, before starting these conversations.
It is estimated that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem every year. As data around mental health tends to be based on surveys of people in private housing, and doesn’t include people in hospital or prison, this figure is likely to be more positive than the reality. Whatever the case, if we are a leader of 4, 12 or 24 people, it is likely that someone in our team is having difficulties and we may not know about them.
As leaders and managers, people have many different responsibilities. Some of these will be operational, others strategic. Perhaps we are responsible for drawing up short and long term plans, making sure that our team meets its targets and holding individuals to account? Alongside these things, leaders have a moral responsibility to ensure that folks are able to work in a supportive happy environment, that the demands on them are fair and manageable and that they have their individual needs met, as far as possible.
If we achieve all of this:
- We are more likely to have a productive, high performing team (which meets all of those operational and strategic targets).
- We are less likely to have high rates of sickness absence.
- And, by making reasonable adjustments for someone who shares that they have a diagnosed mental health problem, we will also be complying with the Disability Equality Act 2010.
WHEN AND WHERE?
There are many benefits to be had by wandering round the workplace, having regular little chats with all members of our team. If this isn’t possible, phone and email conversations can be just as effective. A leader’s life is a busy one and sometimes we might find that a week has flown by without us leaving our office. In this case, it can help to block out time for chats in our diaries, until it becomes more of a habit. By speaking to everyone on a personal level, at least once a week:
- We break down any ‘them and us’ barriers, and create an ‘all in it together’ ethos;
- We may become more aware of any stresses that members of our team are dealing with – such as caring for an elderly relative or a disabled child, dealing with a family bereavement, or struggling financially because of a change in circumstances;
- We will find it is easier to spot any changes in people’s behaviours – perhaps they are starting to use less positive language, or appearing to be more anxious, or are getting angrier about seemingly small things.
If we suspect that someone is struggling, it helps to plan the timing and location of any chat a bit more carefully, rather than making it ad-hoc. Whilst the end of the day or the end of a week may seem like good opportunities, they may not be the best idea. As a leader, there aren’t many worse situations than seeing a colleague leave you in tears on a Friday evening, knowing you won’t see them again for three days.
Instead, it may be helpful to email the person to let them know that, if they fancy a chat, we’re keen to find out how things are going and if there’s anything we can do to help them – at a time and in a place to suit them. It may be that popping out for a coffee and sandwich during lunchtime creates a less pressured, more relaxed atmosphere.
Slightly Bigger Chats
In organisations that are leading the way on mental health and wellbeing, open conversations about life-work balance, workload, levels of accountability etc. are had regularly, often as part of team meetings. By adding a wellbeing slot to any agenda, this enables people to talk about how they are feeling and any difficulties they are having. So that this doesn’t descend into a moaning session, where everyone leaves feeling thoroughly rotten, it is important to develop a solution-focused, creative thinking approach amongst the team. Laughology’s FLIP model is a simple, but highly effective tool to do this.
WHO AND HOW?
There may be occasions that someone wants to chat about their mental health and wellbeing, but not to us! It is always helpful to make colleagues aware of their options. Perhaps we have Mental Health First Aiders, counsellors, an HR department or Occupational Health team who can offer support?
When the subject of mental health is raised, people tend to worry that they’ll say the wrong thing. If the person does want to speak to us, we shouldn’t panic. They won’t be expecting us to be an expert and it’s unlikely that we’ll say the wrong thing. The key here though is to listen.
Have you ever been listening to someone chatting away and just hoping they’ll shut up soon, so that you can say whatever it is that has just popped into your head? Of course you have!
It happens to us all, because we listen at a rate of 125 – 250 words per minute, but think at a rate of 1000 – 3000 words per minute. So, most of the time, we are ‘internal listening’; focusing on our own thoughts and feelings. This might lead us to say things like, ‘I know exactly how you feel, when something similar happened to me…’
First of all, whilst it is good to empathise, we should remember that we can’t possibly know ‘exactly’ how someone else feels. Even if we have experienced a similar situation or event, we won’t feel exactly the same way as them because our beliefs, memories, values and life experiences up to that point will be different.
To be a great listener, we need to shift our thinking from things being ‘all about me’ to ‘all about you.’ This might involve asking the other person to explain a bit more or we might want to clarify things, ‘You said that you are getting some medical help, is that from your GP?’
In a conversation, it will also help to notice if and when the other person’s tone and pitch of voice change, as well as their body language, ‘I noticed that when you mentioned your workload, you seemed to be quite angry. Is that right? Would it help if we look at ways to prioritise/ people who can support you?’
In terms of offering support, we won’t necessarily know everything off the top of our head, and it is fine to say that we’ll check and get back with ideas asap. However, it can be helpful to think about the following, before embarking on a big or little chat about someone’s mental health:
- Do we know what our organisation’s policies are?
- Do we know the phone numbers of people within the organisation who can help, such as Mental Health First Aiders?
- In terms of making reasonable adjustments, are we able to offer flexible working hours, short notice leave for appointments or a quieter, less stressful working environment?
- Do we know the contact details for MIND, SAMARITANS, or any local support groups?
If you’d like to know more, and think that Laughology may be able to help you develop your organisation’s Wellbeing and Mental Health Awareness, we’d love to have a chat.