The missing link in your organisation’s mental health policy
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What’s missing from your organisation’s mental health policy?

Mental health is one of the pressing issues of our time.

Attitudes towards mental health problems are finally changing for the better, with a 6% improvement over the last three years according to the National Attitudes to Mental Health survey. This shift is mirrored in the workplace where we have seen major changes taking place in UK businesses, with many organisations making mental health policies a strategic priority.

There is growing recognition that you can’t isolate someone’s identity at work from their identity as a whole, and that an employee’s struggles with a mental health problem will almost certainly spill over into the workplace at some stage. It’s therefore in employers’ interests to ensure that appropriate support is available, with many providing employee assistance programmes and occupational health services to help those who need support.

The age of mental health champions and first-aid

This focus on mental health in the workplace means that there have been a plethora of initiatives to make the working environment more sensitive to the needs of those with mental health conditions.

Deloitte and some of the major banks have created mental health champions. These are often senior managers who have experienced their own psychological difficulties, and their role is to add credibility to internal campaigns and to send a signal from the top that the business treats the issue seriously.

In some organisations, mental health first-aiders are trained to provide informal support and guidance to colleagues with mental health conditions. Mindfulness, a form of meditation proven to help with depression, is increasingly being offered in organisational settings to help build employees’ resilience. In many instances, CEOs have publicly thrown their weight behind such initiatives adding to the likelihood that they will gain traction.

Meanwhile, external influences are also shaping the landscape around workplace mental health. Large numbers of UK businesses have signed up to the Time to Change campaign and in the City of London wellbeing-focused organisations like Business Healthy, City Mental Health Alliance and Business in the Community, are actively promoting better management of mental health. Significant progress has undoubtedly been made, and there has never been so much momentum behind the idea of creating psychologically healthy workplaces.

Indeed ten years ago it would have been unthinkable for top managers in major financial institutions to admit to struggling with mental health issues

A twist in the plot of employee mental health

And yet, against this narrative of progress and organisational responsiveness, there is an unexpected subplot. Despite all of the laudable developments outlined earlier, something counterintuitive appears to be happening; the workplace experience of those suffering mental health problems appears to have changed little. It may even have deteriorated.

In a recent People Management survey of HR managers, 43% said that mental health among employees had worsened. CIPD’s absence management statistics reveal a continued climb in reported mental ill-health since 2010. Meanwhile, BUPA found that 60% of employees with mental health conditions weren’t happy about how they had been treated at work.

Most worryingly of all, in one survey 53% of respondents said they wouldn’t disclose a mental health problem to their employer or line manager. How do we square this bleak picture with the priority accorded to changing organisational culture for the better?

The line manager: the problem and the solution

I believe that the support systems, policies, procedures and all the other initiatives businesses have implemented to date do have a vital role to play. The problem is that the infrastructure designed to support those with mental health problems is set at too great a remove from the place where the situation surfaces organisationally – with the line manager.

This only serves to mythologise mental health as a complex issue, only understandable to and actionable by professional counsellors, occupational health professionals or specialist clinicians. This, in turn, de-skills the line manager, making them feel unqualified to provide support to employees that are struggling.

Line managers are invariably the first organisational touch point for someone experiencing a mental health problem.

So, if the manager handles the situation sensitively the great likelihood is that the employee will feel well supported. They will be far less likely to go off sick and will find themselves directed towards the appropriate support systems.

Conversely, if the manager handles the situation poorly because they lack the interpersonal skills, the understanding of mental health issues or the confidence to have the conversation, then it’s likely to go badly for both the employee and the business.

Giving managers the confidence to play the part

For most managers the problems isn’t a lack of desire to help; it’s a lack of confidence in their skills to handle the situation properly. This results in them shying away from the conversation often for fear of making it worse.

Line managers don’t need to be experts in mental health. They aren’t counsellors, nor should they feel that they need to be. In most of the situations a line manager is likely to face, an empathic, concerned and compassionate approach is all that is required to communicate support to a distressed colleague.

Line managers’ soft skills and their understanding of mental health conditions are the missing pieces in the jigsaw, without which the other measures will never be fully effective. So if your business is serious about dealing with mental health at work, line manager training is where your focus of attention needs to be.

If you can equip line managers with the right skills and awareness, not only will you find that mental health problems will be managed more sensitively, you’ll see that the same goes for a host of other common workplace situations such as disputes between staff, bereavements and even performance reviews.

Changing your organisational culture is intrinsically difficult, but a great deal has already been achieved to make workplaces more psychologically healthy. Giving your line managers the skills and the confidence to play their part is the way to finish the job.