I was chatting about life and medicine with an experienced doctor recently and he looked at me intently and said ‘you know what Peter? Wherever there is a human being there is a variable. We never have any certainty. Anything can happen’ He was talking about medicine specifically but doesn’t this also apply to any other area of life? Organisations need to understand this if they are to respond appropriately to mental health problems. How do they do that?
When an organisation makes informed responses, as opposed to knee-jerk, simplistic actions, it demonstrates the principle of ‘understanding complexity’.
People are complex. That much is obvious. But it’s depressing how quick people are to label someone who is different to them. My wife loves structure: a room, computer, a desk, somewhere to focus and crank stuff out. But to me, just talking about it… ugh. Give me a laptop at the beach, anytime, or a coffee shop, and then my mind starts flowing. To me, I couldn’t imagine putting someone at a desk and asking them to sit there for eight hours a day – surely that would be torture or they must be incredibly dull and lacking creativity. While to someone like Emi, wanting to take a laptop to the beach looks like some sort of weird learning disorder / ADD thing, lack of commitment, or simply ‘taking the piss’. And therefore we’d better put some controls in place to make sure they work and act how I think they should. That control rankles and it forces the person to perform from a position of weakness, not in a way that amplifies their talents. This is where we need to examine ourselves and say, “Are we unfairly judging someone because they are different? Is there a mental health disorder here, or a killer hidden talent?
Remember the canary. What at first instance may look like a weakness, may in fact be a sign of strength.
We are starting to see organisations respond to the mental health challenges in our workplaces. You can see it in initiatives designed to build awareness, like ‘R U OK?Day’. Building awareness is a good first step, but what happens when you ask someone, ‘are you ok?’, and the answer is ‘No.’ Awareness is powerful, but without knowing what to do next, it’s next to useless.
I’ve often reflected on the role of the manager being ‘to bring certainty and structure to unstructured situations.’ That’s a tough job. We are surrounded by unstructured situations. It’s called life. I think it was John Lennon that said, ‘Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans’. We can expect things not to go exactly to plan. And when things don’t go to plan, managers like to have a process for figuring out what’s wrong and how to fix it. That’s smart! Unfortunately people are incredibly complex. They have different goals and values. Different work styles and preferences. Different belief structures. And events affect them differently. There is no manual for ‘fixing’ a mental health problem – only a range of approaches you can try, some of which seem to work better than others. Would you believe the professionals still disagree about what mental illness even is? They argue amongst themselves and they write long, impressive papers about it, but in the end, there isn’t a consensus.
The point I’m trying to make is that, for a manager, there isn’t much to be gained by being able to diagnose a mental illness and prescribe a treatment plan. It’s not your job to do so. But by recognising that people and situations are complex, taking a step back, and coming at the problem with an enquiring mind, and an intention to help the individual, you can achieve a lot.
Take care, and talk soon.