Training leaders to manage mental health

Written by Lyndon Wingrove on 10 June 2015

It was Mental Health Awareness week in early May, and it came in the wake of a huge amount of press coverage around mental wellbeing in the workplace. Most of us are working in an increasingly fast-paced working world where technology makes us always available. This makes it difficult for people to switch off and the result of that has been a rise in stress and anxiety caused by work.

According to figures released by the Health and Safety Executive, in 2011/12, 428,000 people reported work-related stress at a level that was making them ill. And this doesn’t only have a devastating effect on the individual sufferers; it also impacts the economy as a whole. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that 15.2 million working days were lost in 2013 to mental health problems such as stress, anxiety and depression, up from 11.8 million in 2010, and recent research by ACAS suggests all of this is costing the UK economy around £30 billion a year.

Two things are painfully clear from those numbers: work-related mental health issues are on the rise, and a lot more needs to be done to tackle the problem. Sadly, though, many people suffering with mental health problems don’t feel comfortable talking about it. A recent survey carried out by the Mind Out For Mental Health campaign found that 74 per cent of job applicants with a mental health problem did not disclose it on application forms, while 52 per cent concealed poor mental health for fear of losing their job. It is hardly surprising, then, that the issue is getting worse. People are simply not talking about it.

Get people talking

Perhaps the first training piece for line managers, then, should be about helping them encourage their team members to talk about any issues. This comes with a coaching approach, i.e. asking questions, and it could be during regular one-to-one sessions or on an ad-hoc basis. Getting people talking about their mental health issues could be as simple as asking, “Are you OK?” when they don’t seem themselves.

The most important part of this process is to develop and encourage a culture in which people feel able to talk openly about any issues they are having, without the fear that they’ll be seen in a negative light as a result, or that admitting their problems might be seen as a sign of weakness and impact on their career prospects.

Take a preventative approach

With an increasing number of people suffering from mental health issues as a result of their job, clearly there is something not quite right with the way many workplaces are operating. Nobody is suggesting that businesses should set easier targets and have everyone clock off at lunch time, but there are certainly a few things that organisations and line managers could take into account that would put less unnecessary pressure on their employees.

One of the biggest causes of workplace stress and anxiety, for example, is change. Not just change, but change being poorly executed and poorly communicated. Another big factor is a lack of clarity in terms of what people are supposed to be doing or where their responsibilities lie; again, this is a relatively easy fix. Setting unreasonable or frequently changing deadlines is another big one, and can that email really not wait until morning? It all comes down to managing your employees, and the business, in a way that not only gives people consistency, but also enables them to do good job while also getting the necessary amount of down time.

Help people help themselves                                                                                      

Of course, not all of the onus can be on line managers – they often have their own stress and anxiety to deal with on top of everything else. While line managers should be trained to support their team members through mental health issues, individuals should also be provided with the skills to help themselves.

One of the most effective ways for people to deal with workplace stress is to practise mindfulness. Mindfulness is a fairly simple concept – it is all about focusing on the current moment and avoiding that tunnel vision effect that can come from stressful situations. It can be an extremely powerful technique for people who feel like they are stuck in a hopelessly stressful situation because it forces you to stop relieving past issues or worrying about future ones, but rather focus on the task in front of you and see it in a new perspective.  

Lyndon Wingrove is director of capabilities and consulting at Thales L&D []


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