8th October 2020

Why mental health issues are continuing to rise and how managers can help turn the tide

18th September, 2018

Karen Matovu

Once an issue kept behind closed doors, mental health is now being discussed openly in the workplace only for this to have had little or no affect on solving the problem.

According to last year’s Mental Health at Work report, three out of five employees have experienced a mental health issue in the last year because of work and just under a third of employees have now been formally diagnosed with a mental health issue.

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for this is that when confronted with someone entering into an emotional crisis, managers still feel deeply uncomfortable and unsure of how they should respond, causing them to adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach and hope the issue self-corrects.

Unfortunately, whereas someone off sick with a bad leg or flu will usually recover with time and rest, the same cannot be said of mental health issues, which typically become more entrenched the longer someone is left unsupported. For example, an acute stress issue can all too easily evolve into feelings of low mood, then bouts of depression, giving way to one-off absences, then feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, gradually causing the person to become long-term sick.

Why early intervention is needed

Even when everyone surrounding an employee can recognise that they’re starting to become overwhelmed, or the employee themselves has expressed concerns about their emotional wellbeing, most managers don’t know what to say to them or where to direct them for appropriate support. So a ‘do nothing’ approach tends to be adopted, until the problem goes on for so long, or gets so bad that it can no longer be ignored.

This is unacceptable because most mental health problems can easily be prevented or managed before the employee even goes off sick: so long as employees are given the right support, at the earliest opportunity possible.

Critical to this is helping managers view managing the mental health of others as part of their overall people management responsibilities, and equipping them with the tools and insights required to stop acute mental health issues from escalating into something worse.

Why managers need to manage mental health

While most managers are comfortable talking to someone about a physical injury, such as leg or back-pain, they often don’t know how to open up conversations about mental health because they don’t understand what their role is. Either they are concerned about getting personally involved or have already crossed that line by taking calls from the employee in the early hours of the morning, for example.

So it’s important to educate them that their role isn’t to solve the employee’s problems for them, but rather to listen with compassion and help them to self-solve, or direct them towards appropriate support.

This is actually very difficult for managers to do because in the corporate world their job is to come up with solutions and know the answers. So if an employee were to open up about great feelings of distress because their elderly mother might have to go into a care home soon, for example, the manager’s first instinct is to start offering advice about what they would do in their situation.

How listening can reduce absence

In order for managers to become better listeners, they need to shift the focus from problem solving towards helping the individuals to self-solve. This involves encouraging the manager to ask more questions to draw out further information, before summarising the issues facing the employee and inviting them to think about what they can do to improve their situation, or at least how they feel about it.

This process serves two objectives. Firstly, by helping the employee to self-solve, instead of attempting to dish out a solution, the manager can make them feel less helpless and more empowered to take positive action, so that they can start to come up with practical steps they can put into action themselves. In the case above, this might involve talking to their partner about the prospect of the mother coming to live with them, researching care homes nearby or finding out what state care is available.

Secondly, numerous studies show that a problem shared is indeed a problem halved and the simple act of talking about their worries can in itself make the employee feel better. Of course, if the topic is deeply sensitive or the employee unable to think of any steps they can take to improve their situation, it is also the manager’s role to direct them towards appropriate support, be this HR or an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) that can provide emotional support and practical advice.

Organisations that are preventing mental health issues from snowballing in this way are not only able to reduce absence but also make employees feel more cared about.

Case study: Unipart trains managers to listen to reduce absence

Deborah Astles, HR Director for Corporate Responsibility and Policy at Unipart, explains how they trained managers to reduce mental health issues:

As a nation, we’re getting better at opening up the conversation around mental health, with many employees opting to confide in their manager in the first instance.

On the face of it, this seems like a good idea: their manager knows them and has demonstrated experience at solving workplace problems. So the employee naturally assumed their manager might also be able to help them find answers and solutions to more personal problems.

However, for those managers who haven’t had any training or experience of dealing with a distressed employee, the chances of them providing an appropriate response are limited. So we asked Validium, our EAP provider, to create a bespoke training course to train managers to talk to employees about any issue they might be struggling with, so they could direct them towards appropriate support.”

The resulting ‘Managing Pressure Positively’ workshop equipped managers with the following five-step process for helping an employee in distress:

1.     Role: Know that you are not a mental health professional and that it isn’t your role to counsel or advise the employee. It is your role to really listen.

2.     Listen: Listen with empathy and ask more questions to draw out all the information.

3.     Summarise: Echo back to the employee what it is that’s causing them distress and the issues and obstacles they face.

4.     Self-Solve: Help the employee to ‘self-solve’ by asking them what they can do to improve the situation and making them aware of any support services.

5.     Action Plan: Encourage the employee to create an action plan of specific steps they can do next and check back in with them to see how this is going.

The results

The workshops were very well received by managers. They feel much more able to support employees, now that they know their role is to provide emotional support and help them to self-solve, rather than solve their problems for them.

By increasing the ability of managers to support employees and directing more of them to use our Employee Assistance Programme, the initiative has helped to reduce overall absence by 5% and made employees feel more cared about by 0.5 points in our annual employee engagement survey. 

Karen Matovu

Karen Matovu is head of mental health training at the employee wellbeing consultancy Validium. She is a qualified HR professional, psychotherapist and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (MBACP). Karen works closely with a wide range of employers, designing and implementing mental health and resilience training programmes to help them address the stress, anxiety and trauma issues which can prevent people from attending and performing at work. Karen is also a regular media commentator and has had articles about how to address mental health issues in the workplace published in titles including People Management, Occupational Health, Training Zone, the HRDirector, Guardian and Telegraph.

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