2017 was the year that mental illness stepped into the national consciousness. Over the course of a year, people everywhere began to share their experiences, and there was a definite shift towards acceptance of mental illness in everyday life.
For all of this good, progress has been slow in the workplace. Discussing mental health at work is one of the last great taboos, with sex lives and financial situations being more comfortably spoken about, according to a recent Time for Change survey. Things are in the process of changing, however, and as time goes on we will see an increase in workers sharing their experiences more openly.
This raises an important question: are managers properly equipped to support their staff when an employee opens up about their mental illness? The short answer is likely not.
What’s stopping you?
There remains a significant number of misconceptions surrounding mental health in the workplace. Most managers agree that they are there to support their workers, but how far does this stretch? If, for example, you think you’ve identified an at-risk employee, what are the next steps? The company may have procedures in place, but when surveyed about the topic by Business in the Community, less than a quarter (24%) of managers had received formal training for these situations.
This level of uncertainty generally only leads to one thing... managerial mishandling of what can be a very difficult and stressful situation for an employee.
As a manager, your role is to support your employee through their crisis in the same way as if they had a broken limb.
Add to this the fear that by breaking down the barrier and asking an employee to open up to you, you must then become their councillor, when in reality providing support and receiving professional help are different things. It can produce a climate of uncertainty that can result in a manager hesitating when their direct report might need them most.
Rethinking mental illness
If the employee’s illness was a physical one, the conversation would be a different one. If an employee comes in to work on crutches with their leg in a cast, it’s obvious that they’ve probably broken a leg. You don’t have to ask many question to understand what’s wrong, because you can see where the problem is and how it’s affecting them. And because you can see it, it’s easier to establish a way of working around it.
If they are a typist with a broken hand, you either find a suitable alternative for them to continue typing, or you send them home until they get better. Few people could question the logic of either approach.
Mental illness is not like this. Its nature means that symptoms and observable clues can be inconsistent and subtle. An episode of mania or anxiety can strike with little warning, but the effects are no less debilitating than a physical illness.
As a manager, your role in this situation is to support your employee through their crisis in the same way as if they had a broken limb.
Ideally you will already be aware of your employee’s situation. You might not fully understand it, but it is important to be accepting of it. They will understand their position and needs best of all.
Maintaining an open dialogue to work around the illness will mean that they feel comfortable and accepted, and are ultimately less likely to need time off.
Whilst the ideal is pre-existing awareness of a condition, it’s not unlikely that an employee will take steps to tell you about a recent development in their mental health. Whilst such a disclosure might be a surprise, there are certain things to keep in mind.
Privacy and clarity about information sharing is paramount
Just because they have made a decision to tell you, it doesn’t mean that they have shared it more publicly, and many people may want to keep the information as private as possible. One significant pitfall is in promising confidentiality without having really thought this through.
Do not underestimate how much of a positive impact the thoughtful understanding and support of a manager can have.
For example, it’s likely that as a minimum you may need to share information with HR and/or your own manager.
One crucial principle in information sharing is to always discuss this directly with the person and be clear who you will need to tell, and then discuss what information they want shared with other colleagues.
Accept what you have been told
They will likely understand their situation better than you, including what they need to do to recover. There will probably be things that you will not understand immediately.
Plan for the long term
In disclosing their mental illness to you, they are not saying that they would like to take time off (unless they say that this is the case). It is only a question that you should ask if their performance at work is so affected that they struggle even when reasonable adjustments have been made.
The successful management of the illness is in your employee’s hands, and when done correctly it means that they will continue to perform well. However, having a plan in place for when they go through a rough patch will help all parties. Do not underestimate how much of a positive impact the thoughtful understanding and support of a manager can have.
What are you already doing?
Whilst formal training will leave you surer of your footing, it’s likely that there are already positives in what you do to support your employees’ mental health. Knowing that your manager is supporting you and taking an interest in your wellbeing can be very reassuring.
Things as simple as taking the time to have a cup of tea and a talk can be extremely positive. Sparing five minutes to stop and really ask how someone is can do the world of good.
Ultimately your job as a manger includes a responsibility for the wellbeing of your employees while at work, and this extends to all aspects of their time at work.
A little training can go a long way
Your ability to be effective in these situations is fundamentally related to your level of understanding, skills and confidence in relation to mental health. It means knowing the difference between someone who is having an off day and someone who is genuinely at risk.
It means that when you’ve recognised those signs you can confidently provide support, resulting in them receiving the help that they need sooner.
People with mental illness enjoy working. It keeps them active and their minds fresh. But there will be times when their condition means that work becomes difficult. A good manager recognises that a little understanding and some time off can often help someone back on their feet in no time.
Many managers have not had formal training in this area. The good news is that many of the principles of best practice are relatively simple to learn, and as a result a little training goes a long way.
About Laurence Davies
At Rethink Mental Illness we deliver the highest quality mental health training to audiences in all sectors across the country. Courses include training specifically designed for people managers. For more information or to enquire about training for yourself or your organisation, visit www.rethink.org/training or email our training team at [email protected]