The biggest cause of acute mental health issues is stress – and I think attempts to tackle this in the workplace can turn into a sham.
The rise in Wellbeing initiatives makes it feel like mental health is being considered but too often these programs are being badly implemented; used as a tick box exercise or a sticking plaster instead of a stimulus for genuine and long-term culture change.
I once worked in HR for an organisation that had the highest level of stress related absence I have ever seen. Several of my HR colleagues went on stress leave. I had six managers in the space of 12 months, four of whom went off on stress leave. The other two were short term cover and they didn’t want to remain longer term.
The situation has continued in the same vein and there continues to be a steady stream of stress related absences throughout that business. Recently, I even noticed a job advert for this company looking for a Sickness Absence Manager to ‘establish and maintain a new sickness absence operating policy’.
So instead of addressing the behaviours within the business and working to improve the culture they are looking to find someone to improve reporting and monitoring processes for sickness absence. Hmmm….
It’s great that organisations have put in place Wellbeing teams to provide training and resources to help people who are suffering with poor mental health.
Mental Health First Aid training, for example, is all well and good – but what have organisations done to change their culture and address the root causes stress at work? What are they doing about teams working excessive hours? Presenteeism and a lack of innovation? All things that are driven by unhealthy cultures and leadership behaviours.
Firstly, companies need to address their culture.
Start by seeing and treating each other as humans. The simple things like asking about someone’s interests outside of work, creating forums where people with shared interests can get together. Connect with your team and peers on a human level, understanding each other on more than just a task basis.
Build a sense of purpose that is transparent and regularly communicated with everyone in the business so that people know why and how what they do every day has an impact on the business. Helping individuals to remain engaged and focused while at work. This sense of ‘why’ is hugely important not only to the business but also to individuals, so they can see why what they do matters.
Create a culture of psychological safety where people feel that they can make an alternative suggestion or put forward an idea that will be taken seriously. Employees can challenge the status quo and expect to be heard if they respectfully challenge an opinion – no matter what their status or ranking in a hierarchy. Psychologically safe organisations allow for failure to encourage learning, development, and innovation.
Get rid of control and command style of leadership and instead listen. Listen to what people are bringing to the table and act where necessary. Old-fashioned overbearing and bullish styles of management should not be acceptable anymore.
I had a boss who once believed that to support someone’s growth she first needed to break them, so she made it her priority to devalue and criticise at every opportunity. It’s wrong, it’s abusive and it just doesn’t work.
Managers set the tone for the rest of the team and need to role model what is and what isn’t okay. It’s the slight microaggressions that everyone needs to be aware of and how language, banter and behaviour can have such a detrimental impact on mental health.
I recently overheard a team call, one of the team was talking about their son’s birthday & relayed a conversation that he had had with his son that morning, ‘How does it feel to be a 7-year-old?’ and the son replied, ‘I don’t know, how does it feel to be a 49-year-old?’ The Dad and his teammates had a laugh. The manager then said, ‘to be fair though, you look a lot younger than 49 – although you are as grumpy as an old man’. Everyone on the call laughed.
The manager knew that this team member has a mental health issue and is undergoing counselling for depression. The manager was trying to create banter & was teasing in a friendly manner. It’s exactly this sort of behaviour that left the team member feeling even worse about himself. And this happens regularly.
LEADERS ARE ROLE MODELS
One area for organisations to focus on is developing more positive leadership behaviours. Not only do leaders need to understand and be aware of their language but also be role models of healthy habits. Things like switching off from work emails in the evening and at weekends. Taking holidays. Working flexibly. Saying no to more and more work without additional support. They need to have the ability and be empowered to set realistic timeframes and commitments for their teams. It’s leaders who create psychologically safe environments for their teams too.
Providing training for leaders on how to have feedback conversations or wellbeing check-ins with their teams that are not just work related but an opportunity for people to share their strengths, any development areas that they would like to work on or projects they would like to be involved in. According to a recent survey conducted by the CIPD, only 44% of companies offered proactive support for employee wellbeing and personal development!
There are also policy changes that could significantly help individuals. I noticed Centrica have introduced paid care days where you can take time off to look after anyone who is important in your life. Other organisations have introduced grief days where people can take time off when they are grieving – which might be due to a pet, a friend, or a family member. It might not be at the time of loss but at a time when grief is triggered.
Supportive policies are what helps to create more positive cultures which, in turn promotes greater engagement and better performance.
So maybe instead of pouring thousands of pounds into Band-Aid solutions, companies should spend time on improving their culture instead – this would have the greatest impact of improving wellbeing than any mental health first aider training could provide.