By talking about the mental health issues he suffered after the death of his mother, Prince Harry has done more to destigmatise mental health than years of campaigning.
Although the Daily Mail would have us believe that this is a bad thing – calling for an end to ‘emotional incontinence’ and a return to the stiff upper lip – it’s a watershed moment. If the ‘Kate Middleton effect’ has been to add £1bn to the UK fashion industry, the ‘Prince Harry effect’ is proving to be the ability to make people feel safe talking about their emotions and feelings.
We know this because after Harry’s interview was published, the mental health charity Mind reported a 40% increase in calls, from people who were previously too scared to open up about their mental health for fear of being judged or made to feel ashamed of their feelings.
Employees are finally seeking help
This is a good thing. It means that people who needed help are at last getting it, and that instead of wondering whether or not it’s okay for us to talk about our mental health, we can all start to do this much more openly.
The challenge is giving managers the confidence and understanding required to talk about mental health.
The challenge, especially for the three quarters of employers yet to put a mental health strategy in place, is giving managers the confidence and understanding required to talk about mental health. This is important because many employees struggling with a mental health issue will confide in their manager as the person they most trust to help them.
Unfortunately, for those managers not yet used to managing the mental health of their team as part of their overall people responsibilities, having someone open up to you about their mental health, suicidal feelings or a deeply personal issue causing them distress, can be very uncomfortable.
How not to manage mental health
The typical response of managers faced with someone opening up about their mental health is to try to change the subject (to avoid feeling awkward), brush the employee’s concerns aside (by telling them things probably aren’t as bad as they seem), or launch into problem solving mode (by telling them what they should do).
They may even go so far as to get personally involved by, for example, offering to put an employee up if they leave a physically abusive partner or lending them money to overcome a debt problem.
None of these responses is appropriate.
A manager’s role in managing mental health
As employees become more open about discussing mental health, managers should be clear about the three things required from them.
Although it’s important that managers don’t turn a blind eye towards employees who are clearly struggling to cope. It’s also essential that managers are reminded that they’re not mental health professionals and it’s NOT their role to attempt to take on or solve the employee’s problems. However, it is their role to take the problem seriously and help their distressed employees access professional help.
Suicide is now the main cause of death among young people aged 20-34 across the UK and Ireland, with one death by suicide every two hours. That’s over 6,000 deaths a year. So, directing staff to the right support and showing an interest, can literally save lives.
The role of managers in managing mental health has now become such an important topic that the Government’s National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has issued guidance on what managers need to bear in mind. This includes things like creating a caring culture, noticing when employees are struggling to cope and encouraging them to use available support services. It does not include problem solving on their behalf.
By making managers aware what is and isn’t their role, you can take aware the fear and uncertainty associated with managing mental health."
By making managers aware of what is and isn’t their responsibility, you take away the fear and uncertainty commonly associated with managing mental illness, in particular the belief that once they show an interest, the employee’s problem will somehow become their problem.
This can be incredibly liberating for managers, motivating them to want to help. So much so that a manager we recently trained contacted us afterwards to say she’d used her newfound understanding of mental health to help a young homeless person off the street. She explained that previously, she would never have dreamed of getting involved, but once she accepted she wouldn’t have to offer the person a room in her house, or otherwise take on her problems, she felt able to approach, listen and connect them with a local support service.
As soon as someone starts to open up about a mental health issue, the most important thing you can do is to listen and show empathy. This is harder than it sounds because it takes real concentration and energy to listen properly without changing the topic of conversation, judging or interjecting to give advice. But listening is important for two reasons.
Firstly, a problem shared is indeed a problem halved. The simple act of talking and being heard will decrease the employee’s sense of isolation and anxiety, boosting their self-esteem and giving them confidence to start moving forward.
Secondly, at a time when the employee is feeling overwhelmed by their situation, by listening and asking questions, the manager can provide a safe space for the employee to explore their own coping strategies. Useful questions might include:
- Who might be able to support you with this?
- What do you need to happen to feel better?
- Where would be a good place to start?
- How do you think you could approach this differently?
Often, simply having the opportunity to talk through their problem can help the employee to come up with their own action plan.
For example, an employee who is becoming tearful at work because their elderly mother is struggling to look after herself, might come away with an action plan to talk to relatives about what options for care each family member can commit to, research care homes and call Age UK for more information about state-funded eldercare.
Whatever actions are taken, it’s important that they have been generated by the employee and not the manager.
The topic might be too sensitive to talk about or the employee might be unable to think how to improve their situation.
At other times, the topic might be too sensitive to talk about, or the employee might be unable to think of any steps they can take to improve their situation.
In that case, the manager’s role is to show kind concern and direct the employee towards appropriate support, be this a charity helpline, HR or an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), offering confidential access to professional counsellors, as well as legal, financial, debt, health and eldercare advisors.
In this way, you can empower your managers to use the opportunity created by Prince Harry to help address the huge absence and lost productivity costs associated with mental health issues that cost UK businesses £30bn a year.
About Karen Matovu
Karen Matovu is a qualified HR professional and psychotherapist. She is responsible for delivering mental health and resilience training programmes for Validium, the employee wellbeing and mental health solution provider. She works closely with blue chip employers to help them address the stress, anxiety and trauma issues that can limit the ability of employees to attend and perform at work. She is also a regular media commentator and has written articles about mental health for People Management, Occupational Health, TrainingZone and theHRDirector.