It’s hard being a manager. Often, it can feel like you’re the meat in the sandwich, between the needs of the employees and the needs of the Senior Directors or Board. But when it comes to mental health, taking action can have a positive effect for both parties. And it’s great for business! So why do so many managers get stuck – why do they shy away from addressing workplace mental health? Here are just some of the reasons:
Will this look like harassment?
- For managers who do decide to wade into a mental health issue, a real concern is how the employee will react. What if the employee takes exception to the line of questioning? What if they feel so put out that they lodge a formal complaint against the manager for harassment? This is a valid concern, as they’re likely to be dealing with a person in a heightened state of sensitivity, with many people with a mental health issue reporting that they feel bullied or harassed more often. For a manager, having a workplace harassment or bullying judgement go against them has serious consequences: the organisation may be liable for damages, the manager themselves may be personally liable. And it can seriously curtail that manager’s confidence and ability to manage performance thereafter. Once bitten, twice shy.
What if I make it worse?
- In reality (and we’ll discuss this later) the risk of a successful harassment or bullying claim being brought against a manager for addressing a mental health concern is very low, when done properly. And therein lies a challenge: ‘properly’. Many managers who are genuinely concerned about an employee’s mental health will avoid addressing it for fear of doing something that makes things worse. ‘What if I say the wrong thing?’, ‘What if I embarrass them?’, ‘Should I just report it to someone?’, are all common questions that go through a manager’s head. These are valid questions by the way – managing a mental health issue in a team does take a set of skills. The reason most managers don’t feel confident with this stuff is that they’ve never been taught the skills. In no business degree, MBA or even HR qualification that I know of are mental health management skills taught. Managers are really left to rely on their own experience and their emotional intelligence to deal with these situations. And in allowing that to happen, frankly, we are letting our managers down.
I really don’t have time for this.
- We don’t have to look far to realise that managers across the country are overworked. I don’t mean in a ‘we just say we’re busy so people think we’re useful’ kind of way – I mean many of our organisations are chronically under resourced. The downsizing and delayering of middle management in the late 80s and early 90s was taken too far. To use a medical analogy, companies went beyond ‘cutting out the fat’ and have cut out some of the minor muscle groups. Line and middle managers in particular are seeing their workloads and responsibilities grow for little to no extra resources or compensation as organisations downsize and rationalise. Many managers simply do not have the headspace or the energy to involve themselves in the mental health of their employees – they’re flat out managing their own.
As you can see, these are genuine considerations that need to be addressed if a workplace mental health strategy is to be effective. And they all can be addressed by educating managers about the need to (and benefits of) managing mental health effectively, but also to equip them with real and practical skills to do it right, so they are not at risk of a harassment claim, and so that they don’t make it worse.