Talking Mental Health with Laura Rosenthal

11 October 2023

October 10th is World Mental Health Day, and as part of our continued focus on this important topic, 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. She recently took a lead advisory role on an online mental health awareness resource Steps developed for managers within a retail bank.  This digital programme combined expert knowledge and theory alongside scenario-based learning and has been completed by over 3,300 people, engaging with more than 14,000 modules – with the aim of raising awareness of mental health at work and equipping managers with the skills and confidence to ‘have the conversation’.


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 challenge of remote working, health worries, cost of living concerns, balancing work & home life, lack of connection – all the personal and professional challenges that hybrid and remote working 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?

Absolutely!  One of the greatest challenges for managers in the hybrid/remote working world 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 – or a combination of all these factors.  And whatever the challenge, the result is that managers could feel ‘impotent’ to help and worried they’re not doing their job effectively as a manager.  They could be unconsciously incompetent or consciously incompetent – but neither of those are positive places to be.  These are parts of their people management job that they’re often not trained for and possibly never wanted or asked for!

The nature of many people’s jobs fundamentally changed as a result of the pandemic and in the years that have followed, as individuals, teams and businesses have adapted to new ways of working.  People have been asked (or told!) to do different roles, in different environments and without the familiar support and structure of their colleagues and workplaces – and 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 – because of hybrid and remote working we’re seeing into each other’s homes more than we have in the past 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.  The pandemic and its aftermath caused 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.

The other consideration in relation to technology is that whilst it is fantastic for connecting us, it can also blur the boundaries between work and home life.  There is often an assumption, because you can log on remotely, that you can and should be available for work at all times – so it’s harder for individuals ‘protect’ precious down time that allows them to manage their mental load and sense of wellbeing.  It can also be challenging in relation to sick days – because how can we say we are too ill to ‘come to work’ – when, technically speaking, work is only in the next room?


That’s so true!  And I guess we’re still adapting to hybrid working in many respects, so managers are still in unchartered territory…

Undoubtedly.  Hybrid working and continued ‘moving parts’ as organisations adapt to new ways of working make the managerial challenge significant here.  Very often managers are working with newer policies, processes and systems that have had less time to be embedded practically, so this can lead managers to feel like they can’t give definitive answers, they’re nervous to get things wrong and/or that they’ve lost control or familiarity with those management processes they knew well before.  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.

Over the past few years there has been huge organisational flux as well as individual-social flux and that has been, and in many cases continues to be, hugely destabilising for many people. As a result of these changes, managers have, in effect, been disempowered to do their jobs well – so this reinforces the need to make mental health everyone’s business when it comes to the workplace.


So what, in your view, should organisations be doing when it comes to effectively managing mental health at work?

Have the conversation.

It sounds simple, and in many respects it is – but in my experiences sometimes this seemingly ‘basic’ step can feel the most daunting.   Thankfully mental health at work is talked about far more frequently now that it ever was – but stigma and a lack of awareness can still make it a challenging topic for organisations.    So, what we need to do is demystify these conversations, raise awareness, reflect on our own lived experience and response and working towards making mental health a priority for all of us.

Of course, managers are often the first port of call for individuals to raise concerns, they are also the most likely to spot changes within colleague behaviour or team dynamics which may be an indication that someone is struggling with mental ill health.  So, equipping your management population with the skills and confidence to start the conversation can make a huge difference.

Having said that – some of the most successful programmes we have delivered at Steps have been created with ‘scalability’ in mind – meaning that content can be accessed by all colleagues in the business – acknowledging that anyone can and should be equipped to spot the signs and, if needed, feel they can begin the conversation.

At work, we often feel we need to have the answers or offer solutions when challenges arise but –particularly when we are discussing mental health – to be able to connect on a human level, with empathy, active listening and kindness is very often the most effective in opening up honest conversations that are the first step in individuals seeking support.

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