Mental Health Awareness at Work – Part 1

6 May 2021

Ahead of Mental Health Awareness Week (10th-16th May), I spent some time talking to one of our fantastic Learning Partners Laura Rosenthal.  Laura is an Instructor Member of MHFA England and regularly delivers Steps programmes that address mental health, wellbeing and resilience.  In Part One of our conversation, I asked for her thoughts on the current challenges for people managers in relation to workplace mental health.

So Laura, in your view what’s the current challenge for people managers when we’re thinking about mental health awareness at work?

Managers need to be managing their own issues and stresses while supporting their teams at the same time.  Managers could themselves be struggling with the isolation, health worries, lack of connection – all the personal and professional challenges this pandemic has brought – and they somehow have to switch that off in order to help and support those they’re managing.

If they are struggling themselves, but having to cope and effectively manage others – it can be easy to leak anger and frustration.  That feeling of ‘I’m having to manage, so why can’t you?’ – can be a real challenge for those less naturally empathetic.   And let’s not forget the pressure of commercial performance on top of this.  Managers are spread thin – they need to be supportive with team members (as a ‘people manager’) as well as keeping a focus on getting the work done (as ‘task manager’).   It’s a tricky balance!

In our mental health programmes, I talk a lot about the challenge of ‘pouring from an empty cup’. This analogy relates to the need to have ‘reserves’ on which to draw, and the idea that an individual can only provide effective support to others if they are not ‘pouring from an empty cup’.  Only if they have sufficient headspace of their own can they dedicate time and energy to someone else.  When energy levels, resilience and mental wellbeing is depleted, it can be hugely challenging – and sometimes impossible – to give adequate time, energy and support to others.

You mentioned the commercial pressures that play out alongside this… presumably there are managers that excel in task management, but find the people management side far more challenging – especially right now?

Absolutely!  One of the greatest challenges for managers right now is not being able to spot the signs of mental illness in the first place, and potentially not knowing what to do when they do encounter them.  This could be because of a lack of skills, of confidence or a lack of formal training.  And whatever the challenge, the result is that managers could feel ‘impotent’ to help and worried they’re not doing their job as a manager.  They could be unconsciously incompetent or consciously incompetent – but neither of those are positive places to be.  These are new parts of their people management job that they’re not trained for and probably never wanted or asked for!

The nature of many people’s jobs has fundamentally changed over the past 12 months too because of this pandemic and the challenges it’s created for individuals, teams and businesses.  People are being asked (or told!) to do different roles, in different environments and without the familiar support and structure of their colleagues and workplaces – that takes a toll.

And that lack of connection also adds to the challenge I suppose?  Technology is great of course, but it can also be limiting…

Yes definitely.  Home working and the limitations of digital communication makes it much harder for managers to spot the signs of mental illness, stress, anxiety, etc – it’s harder to see the non-verbal clues.  Add to this that ‘Zoom fatigue’ or the need to have privacy in the home might mean we need to use the telephone for some conversations with direct reports, particularly if we’re discussing sensitive topics.  Managers already have limited access to the non-verbal clues by using video-calling technology – but if you are only hearing someone by phone, that ‘visibility’ is reduced even further.

The opposite is true too I guess – we’re seeing into each other’s homes more than we ever have right now and that can be detrimental in other ways.  That’s an added pressure for individuals isn’t it?

Undoubtedly – we’re seeing into each other’s homes like never before – and that brings with it a risk of assumptions and potential for judgement.  This year more than ever there has been a collision between the personal and professional – and for all of us, but especially managers, that carries a risk that our professional outlook is compromised.   We’re less in control than we’ve likely ever been, with so much uncertainty touching so many aspects of our lives.

The managerial challenge is significant here.  They don’t have the answers currently – and can easily feel like they’ve lost control or are powerless to effect change.  They either can’t help because they’re not equipped to, or because the constant changes (to social rules, working practices, expectations, etc) mean they can’t respond quickly enough.  What’s going to happen with furlough, redundancies, moving from office to WFH and back again?  There’s huge organisational flux as well as individual-social flux and because of these changes, managers have, in effect, been disempowered to do their jobs well.

Whenever there is a lack of control, anxiety levels will always rise and never has there been a time when everyone has so little control over what’s happening in their world both at work and at home.  These are significant changes that we didn’t ask for, changes that are being forced on us – and this is hugely destabilising for many people.

Part Two of my conversation with Laura can be found here. To find out more about our approach to Mental Health at Work, click here to find out about our session on Having Conversations about Mental Health at Work, delivered in partnership with Laura.

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