Recent lockdowns and changing government restrictions have delivered feelings of vulnerability around our health, relationships, finances, job security, the list goes on. Dealing with just one of these issues at any time would be challenging, but trying to manage several or for some people - all of these at once, is a perfect storm for bringing our mental health undone.
So, it’s no surprise that we’re all experiencing various levels of stress and anxiety at the moment, and this will be impacting on individuals, teams and work output.
As an employer, we have a duty of care to monitor the wellbeing of team members. Whilst you can’t wave a magic wand, eradicate the pandemic and watch everyone return to their ‘old’ selves, you can initiate a conversation about mental health, particularly if you’ve noticed signs they may be struggling.
Employees don’t have any obligation to disclose their mental health conditions with their employer and some of the time, they may not be aware of it themselves. So it’s vital to know the signs and understand the best way to approach employees who may be suffering. And to understand how to best support them.
There are a few ways that as Managers, we can keep a close read on the psychological wellbeing of our teams:
Be tuned in to changes in behaviour
Behaviours associated with declining mental health are many and varied. Ensure that you educate yourself either through the vast online resources available or by doing a Mental Health First Aid certificate.
Knowing the signs is crucial. Watch for things like increased absenteeism, talking about unusual thoughts or topics, decreased personal care, reduced energy or motivation and increased irritability. This may be sudden or occur over time. Anything that is out of character should be explored.
Have a conversation
A problem shared is a problem halved. Often just being able to express how they are feeling can lessen the intensity of the emotions for a person. Ask specific questions to ensure that you don’t miss anything. Rather than a generic “how are you”, try something like “how are you feeling today”, “are you ok”, “what sort of things are you doing to cope at the moment”, “how’s your sleep right now”. These more targeted questions will be more likely to get responses that will provide you with the insights you need. Don’t do this in open forums as some people will hide their issues in front of others. Ensure in your 1:1’s that you always ask wellbeing questions before moving onto work content.
Listening is often the most important part of having a conversation around mental health, just giving the person your ear and letting them know you are there for them can be enough.
It’s R U OK? Day on Thursday, 10 September. To help you promote the message in your business, and to give some tools to have conversations with your team, you can download free resources from the R U OK? website, here.
Don’t try to be an expert
While you may have some knowledge or even personal experience with mental health issues, it is important not to claim the role of ‘expert’.
Managers should only address the wellbeing factors that are impacting work and let the professionals manage the underlying health concerns that may be causing these behaviours.
Once you have recognised that a team member may need additional support and have had a conversation with them, point them in the direction of any company resources that you have in place such as your Employee Assistance Program (EAP). You can also point them to organisations such as Beyond Blue and Heads Up, which provide fantastic free resources that are accessible to everyone.
Be flexible and compassionate
We all need to be flexible and compassionate at the moment as we wade through these COVID waters. There is no point loading someone up with work when they are clearly struggling. It will be counter-productive and could further exacerbate a mental health condition. Recognise when an employee may need some flexibility either in how they work when they work or the type of work they are doing. Adjustments may need to be made, and we will need to be compassionate towards people’s individual circumstances.
Be an example to others
If you are talking about the ways you fill your own bucket and manage your wellbeing, this will naturally cascade to your team. For example, share some of the healthy recipes you have been using at home, create a virtual running/walking group, talk about how getting sleep is helping you and try not to encourage or promote using substances to cope.
Also, let your team know it’s ok to admit you’re feeling a bit a flat. Maybe you can admit this yourself one day. Tell them that everyone’s feeling a little off-kilter at the moment, that we all sometimes need a day off and if that’s the case for them, to simply talk to you about it and they won’t be judged or penalised.
Health over output
If a team member is experiencing mental health issues and needs support, it may be necessary to put work on the back burner while the individual focusses on seeking the help they require. Provide them with some options and put forward personal leave as one of them, if it is available. Outline how your team can cover their work so that the thought of this is not an extra burden. Health needs to come first, always.
A wellbeing culture
Investing in mental health training for managers, having a robust wellbeing policy and ensuring that wellbeing is prioritised through your communications and actions will help create a workplace where people feel safe, supported and engaged.
Let go of any fears that employees will take advantage of the system. The evidence proves a strong correlation between employee wellbeing and business success – unsurprisingly, people are much more connected, engaged and productive when they are feeling well within themselves. It is a no brainer.
Connection and random acts of kindness
Stay close to your team, give lots of praise where warranted and ensure they’re feeling connected. Send the odd Uber Eats voucher as a thank you for great work or effort. Check on people with a phone call that’s not particularly work related. If you can make your teams’ job a safe haven during uncertainty, it might just go a long way to preventing you needing to chat to them about a mental health problem down the line. And you will almost certainly also see an uplift in work quality.
Whilst monitoring employees’ mental health may feel for Managers like ‘just another thing to have to do’, it has become a critical leadership skill, particularly through this difficult period. Employees need to feel ok to ask for help and to feel safe doing so. As Managers, we can encourage this by being more flexible, sensitive and open-minded.
The stigma that has historically been attached to mental health prohibits an inclusive, healthy and safe workplace which is essential for employees to thrive. As tough as the pandemic has been, it has brought mental health to the forefront. Those businesses and leaders who are prepared to confidently talk about mental health will be ahead of the curve in creating a culture of wellbeing that will set the business up for long term success.