Recently, I was asked by a National HR Director for three tips she could give to a meeting of HR Leaders. She only had one hour. Here are my top three tips (mind you, these are the ones that come to the top of my mind straight away but by no means the only ones! Any surprises?
The top three tips I would give are:
1. Don’t be in a hurry to send people home
– often, when someone has expressed some problems with mental health, managers panic and their first response is to send someone home. In fact, that is not necessarily the best thing for the person’s well being nor for the business. If the person goes home, they can start ruminating about challenges at work, feeling like a failure for not being able to perform at the level they want to, and returning to work becomes harder and harder. Statistically, once a person has been absent due to stress of mental ill-health for more than 3 days, the likelihood of them returning to work is very slim. We know staying at work is better for their mental health. And for the business, when someone has gone home, others have to pick up the extra work, leading to more pressure on those team members, and resentment towards the absent person (or their manager). It’s much better if you can work with the person to negotiate a way they can stay at work – perhaps some reasonable adjustments are needed for a certain period of time. But in order to navigate these conversations, managers have to have good skills and a solid understanding of the complexities of mental health issues.
2. Play nice and be kind
– given the research shows that between 20-30% of people will experience a mental health issue each year, it is not anything to be frowned upon, or which should be a surprise for managers. It doesn’t discriminate according to your job position either. It just as likely could be a supervisor, a senior manager, or the CEO who is going through something challenging like this. So when we are responding to mental health in the workplace, we need to consider how we would like to be treated if it was us? The relationship that the staff member has with their direct supervisor is the most critical indicator of how a mental health problem will impact the workplace. Whether it is a small matter that gets dealt with early, or whether it unravels and becomes a psychological injury claim. Managers need to watch their own frustration with people experiencing mental ill-health, in order to manage it in the best way possible. This takes a high degree of resilience and emotional intelligence.
3. Have higher expectations of people with mental health problems
– returning again to the statistics of 20-30% or people, that means that up to a third of your workforce may be experiencing mental health problems in any one year. Mental health problems may impact on their work, but for many people work becomes a safe haven, where they can feel productive and contribute. Just having a mental health problem does not necessarily mean the person has lost any intelligence, skills or capability. However they may need some extra support. At the WMHI our position is that we need to support employees to meet the expected level of performance, rather than lower the expectations. This is another conversation that managers need to be able to have skilfully.
That is what I’d like to communicate to your managers too. If this sounds right to you, I’d be happy to have a chat with you about these concepts if you think it would be useful.