Mental health affects each and every individual within an organisation. Considering the amount of time that professionals spend in the workplace, it is now recognised as crucial for managers to identify when their team members are suffering, and to be able to help them manage any challenges. So, what role can strong business leadership and HR management play in ensuring that employees are positively managing their mental health at work? 

Periods of poor mental health can impact anyone at any time. In fact, the ‘Thriving at Work’ report suggests that mental health costs the UK economy £99bn per year and £42bn of that is borne by employers - based on the instances we are aware of. Society has taught us, historically, that mental health conditions are something to be kept private and behind closed doors. It has only been the last few years that we have seen more awareness about the impacts of mental ill-health and a drive to normalise conversations about mental health. In line with this growing focus on the topic, the number of reported absences from work for mental health related problems is increasing, which can only be seen as a positive. This means that employees are starting to feel comfortable being more open at work. 
Generation Z and millennials have grown up where wellness and wellbeing are key focuses in modern culture, a shrewd business leader will drive the same culture in the workplace to nurture employees emotionally, engaging them and thus boosting performance and loyalty in return. The tone is set from the top, so strong leadership and a collaborative approach with the HR function is key in driving positive messaging around mental health in the workplace.

The manager’s role

Effective and empathic management is very important when dealing with mental ill-health and employee wellbeing, and steps should be put in place to actively monitor the organisation’s mental health strategy. Line managers are key in promoting positive mental health and self-care, they are closest to their employees and are best placed to spot any changes in behaviour and personality, as not all mental health conditions present themselves as classic low mood or emotional outbursts. Any change in a person’s demeanour or behaviour could be a sign of a mental health condition or simply that they are going through something that is impacting their decision making and mental wellness. 
A staple in any line manager’s tool kit is a 1-2-1 meeting. Spending some time talking through what is going on with your team will assist you in signposting and supporting them through periods of ill-health. Treat mental health exactly as you would if you noticed a member of staff visibly in pain. In this instance, you would ask how they were and what you could do to help. The same applies to mental health and wellbeing.

Key skills for managers

There are some key soft skills that managers need to possess in order to effectively manage the mental health concerns of their employees. These include:
  • Showing empathy
  • Strong listening skills
  • Asking the right questions
  • Signposting to specialist support
  • Self-care
  • Understanding limitations 
If managers approach their employees from an authentic place with good intentions, it is less likely that mistakes will be made. It is important to listen to your employees, don’t automatically offer advice as sometimes people aren’t looking for anecdotes and personal experience, they simply want to talk and be heard.

Identifying mental health problems early

As with any illness, it is much easier to support someone through management and recovery if it is caught early. Often with mental illness, we ignore the symptoms until they become unmanageable and escalate to the point where it is even harder to recuperate. Any changes in behaviour could be a sign of mental ill-health. 
It usually isn’t as simple as someone being ‘down’. If someone suddenly starts going out and spending irrationally, becoming argumentative, or being withdrawn when they are usually gregarious, then these changes can all be signs that this individual is struggling. 

Offering support to staff with mental health issues

It is important for businesses to let their staff know that what they are going through is normal and that the business supports them and encourages them to seek assistance. Do you have an employee assistance programme or partner with any mental health charities to signpost the employee to? Do you have medical insurance that provides for mental health treatment and counselling? Can the business accommodate adjustments to the individual’s role that will facilitate better mental health management? For instance, if they are regularly travelling away from home for long periods of time, is that a trigger? Ask your staff what they need. 
Work with your employees when it comes to self-care and management, and be proactive with it. Ask them what they need when they are going through periods of poor mental health and agree on a Wellness Action Plan (WAP) that you can implement together to ensure ongoing and proactive mental health management. 
Tania Garstang
Associate Director, Michael Page Human Resources
T: +44 113 388 9023