Where companies often get tripped up when it comes to mental health at work

Jo Hooper

I’ve been running a series of training sessions lately, to help managers understand how to support their people’s mental health at work – and crucially how to help them when they’re struggling.

In each session, we’ve spent a good amount of time figuring out together one key issue – what is the role of an employer when it comes to mental health.

How this can trip you up

Mental health is so complicated; there are so many different mental health issues; everyone reacts in such different ways; I don’t want to make someone’s mental health worse.

I hear these concerns a lot – totally understandable and all accurate. 

But these issues or questions highlight the fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the employer when it comes to mental health in the workplace. 

What your role isn’t 

  • As an employer, your role is not to be your employees’ Doctor, therapist or counsellor
  • You don’t need to be an expert in all mental health issues and how they affect people – you’re not a psychologist and you’re not supposed to be
  • You are not there to fix your employee’s mental health. You don’t need to feel like you should have all the answers – or any of them!

What your role is

Fundamentally, your role as an employer is to create a safe and healthy (and I would say happy!) environment for your people. A place where people can thrive (shameless plug for my podcast of the same name here!)

But what does that mean? Here’s my take on how to fulfil that role and what it means in practice:

  • Know your people and notice when they aren’t themselves – we spend the majority of our time at work. We see our colleagues more than we see our friends, families and sometimes even partners! Get to know your teams, it will help you spot when something isn’t right
  • Be curious and listen – if you do notice behaviour out of the ordinary (think unexplained sickness; introversion; irritability; not meeting deadlines; defensiveness), ask your people how they are. Use open questions, be curious and listen – remember, you don’t need to give answers or solutions
  • Support them – your role as an organisation, your role as a manager is to support your people to be their best at work. If you’re not sure what support they need, ask them!
  • Have ‘formal’ support in place – as a minimum, I would recommend having an Employee Assistance Programme – a free and confidential phone line that offers advice and support on a number of issues, but when it comes to mental health you can generally offer up to 8 free sessions of counselling or therapy. Many organisations also have healthcare provision, which offers cover up to a certain financial level to allow people to access talking therapy support. Given the waiting lists for NHS therapy treatment (a topic for another blog post!), using an EAP scheme is often the quickest and easiest way to access support
  • Be willing to make adjustments – if someone had broken their arm or leg, you would make adjustments to their working hours, location and support to help them fulfill their role and manage their recovery. It is exactly the same when it comes to mental health. Be willing to make reasonable adjustments to help someone manage their mental health, while also continuing to work – we don’t give up on our careers just because we’re struggling with our minds! Consider working hours, workload, location, number of meetings or contact time, levels and methods of communication
  • Empower and equip your managers – your managers are on the front line – they are the ones their teams will come to when they’re struggling, they are the ones who will be sent the ‘not fit to work notes,’ or talking to a crying colleague in a meeting room. They need to know what you expect of them in that situation, what support and flexibility they can offer, and that you support them as managers to fulfil their role
  • Contract with people – if you’re worried about someone thinking you think them incapable, because you’re bringing up behavioural changes you’ve noticed; or you’re not sure how or whether to contact someone before they come back to work – set this out up front. At the start of your meeting, make it clear that you know they are a great team member, but that you want to understand how they are and support them. When you’re talking to someone about them taking some time off, ask them if they’re happy for you to check in with them before they are due back in the office to make sure their first day back runs smoothly – and ask them how they’d like you to contact them
  • Have a clear commitment to your people – be clear about what support is on offer for your staff, how and when that support can be used or offered; and your commitment to ensuring that their health is not considered when looking at their performance

Understanding your role as an employer when it comes to mental health at work is the basic foundation you need to help you understand what steps to take and how to support people.

This stuff isn’t easy, it is complicated and it can lead to difficult conversations, but it’s something we all need to tackle.

I hope this blog has given you food for thought and helped you to take some steps in thinking about how to tackle mental health in your organisation.

If you’d like some more support with it, please do get in touch – I’d love to support you.

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