Mental health should be front of mind for all managers

Being a great manager is about much more than simply delegating workloads and tracking performance against KPIs and targets. Leaders should never lose sight of the fact they have an important personal responsibility for their staff and their wellbeing. It’s also unarguable that a happy workforce is very often a motivated and productive one.

Following a raft of initiatives in recent years, from high profile Time to Change campaigns to the Government’s wide-ranging Thriving at Work report in 2017, there’s never been a bigger focus on mental health in the workplace. Both have highlighted the important role employers – and their leaders - play in creating an environment where the mental wellbeing of staff is a priority, and individuals feel they can share challenges or concerns they are facing. 

Whilst these initiatives have been commendable, there is clearly still work to be done, as emphasised by a recent Michael Page study*. The report found that almost one-third of UK employees would not feel comfortable talking to their manager about mental health problems for fear of being judged. Researchers found in excess of nine million workers would ‘dread’ discussing their mental wellbeing with their superior. Other key stats include:

  • One-fifth of UK workers fear they would be ostracised for revealing they had a mental health problem.
  • 36% think confiding in their boss would hamper their career.
  • 71% STILL consider mental health to be a taboo subject in the workplace and four in 10 think they are better off suffering in silence.
  • 41% – 13 million workers – have called in ‘sick’ rather than tell their boss the real reason.

Meanwhile, 45% per cent think their colleagues would view them differently, 26% fear they’d be labelled ‘weird’, and 16% think they would even be laughed at. Perhaps most concerning of all is that 27% have left a job due to it having a negative impact on their mental health, and a further seven in 10 have considered handing in their notice for the same reason.

Experts’ perspectives

Following the publication of the report, we spoke to mental health activists Jonny Benjamin and Neil Laybourn to discuss the importance of breaking down stigmas in the workplace. The pair made headlines in 2014 when Benjamin credited Laybourn with saving his life at a time when he was suffering from mental health problems. Benjamin was about to jump off Waterloo Bridge when Laybourn – a stranger – managed to talk him down. The pair have since used their experiences to help educate businesses on how to become more aware of the issues surrounding mental health. 

For Benjamin, the key is viewing mental health for what is it is – a problem with someone’s health. “It’s quite easy to call in sick because you have the flu or a bad case of food poisoning, but telling your boss you need a mental health day isn’t as straightforward for most people,” he explained. “We find it normal, or at least easier, to talk about our physical illnesses than we do about how life, stress and mental ill-health affects our brain.” Laybourn supported the statement, adding: “People fear that opening up about their mental health will affect the way their colleagues or boss perceives them – some even worry that this will have an impact on their career progression. The truth is that speaking up about mental health in the workplace is the only way to break this stigma. You’re probably not alone, and you may even encourage and help others to share their own stories and find the support they need.”

Offering options for opening up

While the study highlighted significant challenges for UK businesses, it’s important to note that it also raised some cause for optimism. For example, of those who said they had summoned up the courage to speak to their manager about a mental health problem, over half felt supported following the chat, underlining the need to end the stigma around opening up. According to Sarah Kirk, Global Diversity & Inclusion Director at Michael Page, creating a “culture of trust, openness, support and acceptance” is the key to making real progress in this area. 

“A good place to start is to support line managers with training and workshops on how to take care of themselves, but also spot signs of mental ill-health within their own teams,” she explains. “When it comes to providing this crucial support to employees, it’s all about giving them a choice. Some may not feel comfortable speaking to their manager about their mental health, but there are plenty of other ways for businesses to give people that confidence to speak up and bring their whole selves to work. Different things work for different people.”

Options for facilitating discussions around mental health in the workplace could include:

  • Encouraging employees to speak to a human resources business partner.
  • Setting up an anonymous 24/7 helpline that staff can call.
  • Offering counselling or activities which promote mindfulness, such as yoga.

Ultimately, creating an environment where employees feel confident in discussing their mental health is not just the responsibility of HR teams or line managers; the whole team needs to be pulling in the same direction and understanding the importance of creating a supportive environment where everyone feels able to bring their true selves to work. As Benjamin concludes: “We spend so much of our time at work, and although it can be very fast-paced or stressful at times, the environment we spend the majority of our week in should never make us feel uncomfortable, or be the cause of our mental ill-health.”

For more advice and guidance on mental health, we’d recommend looking at the following resources:

* study of 1,000 respondents May 2018

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