Mental health in the workplace started out as a corporate buzz word for taking care of ourselves when not all ailments are visual or even physical. We limit stress to avoid lost time on teams and wages on PAYE. Mental health is rightly becoming far more recognised and appreciated as a workplace imperative rather than something employers either ignored or viewed as simply a HR issue.
I am writing this because as businesses, we need to be prepared for the myriad ways in which mental health issues can manifest. We need to be prepared to recognise warning signs and act appropriately. We need to tackle it head on, but that does not in any terms mean we don’t need to treat the issue delicately.
Patience is needed
Not everyone is going to be forthcoming with their struggles and some people will take a very long time to come to terms with the fact that they need help.
As employers what we need to be trying to do is recognise that a missed metric, tardiness and changes to mood can just as easily be indicators that one of our people is struggling to adjust as they can be indicators of a lack of interest. Something that needs to be dealt with carefully and not simply marched into a room for a warning on expectations.
I am in no position to advise on how this is best achieved. However, I would suggest as a ballpark suggestion, would be wait for outliers to appear – if all but 3 employees are back to ‘normal’ when we all return after, say, 3 weeks – take some time to just have a catch up with each of them and just see if you can do anything to help. Do not expect much from this conversation. It is important to keep this to an informal catch up to see if you can provide any support and then leave it for a few days. What is important, is that you do not make this seem like a HR exercise. Make it clear that you are listening. If you perhaps aren’t the right person for this chat, then maybe speak to someone they are more likely to open up to or who is more of a person centred personality than a direct and statistics based mentality.
Obviously, this does not assume that management are immune to these issues. We need to watch each other and keep each other going in these uncertain times.
Everyone has had a different lock down
Whilst furlough may on paper appear like a paid holiday, for some it may have been treacherous isolation left for hours on end to worry about the future – if they and their family members make it that far. For others, who may not have hobbies, they may have no sense of structure when sat inside with little to do, no one to interact with except through the icy lens of a phone screen.
Adjustment is a huge part of this process regardless of our mental health outcomes. Change and adjustment are difficult whoever you are, which is why it is so important that we encourage ourselves and others to treat each other as fellow humans first, and employees/employers second. This doesn’t mean by any means that we should throw the rule book out of the window and surrender to a New Anarchy rather than a New Normal. Simply that we connect with our people as just that – people.
Another thing to keep in mind is that both sides of this can lead to becoming overwhelmed when getting back to work. No matter what the guise of work comes in – even working from home after 3 months off can be daunting regardless of your mental health.
As with most things, the difficulty with mental health is that everyone is different and we react differently in the same situation. For example, two people may be living in similar circumstances but their behaviours could manifest very differently. One person may be at home on furlough sat inside panicking about all of the potential outcomes and future possibilities and leave lockdown already overwhelmed – they may be visibly distressed upon returning to work. Someone else on furlough may suffer from depression in lockdown and the same or similar circumstances leads to them returning tired, lethargic and unable to function as they used to because their mind (and by extention, their body) has adapted to an existence of depressed functioning. Think of this as the mind’s way of stopping us from becoming overwhelmed with anxiety.
The bottom line
If you take nothing else from this article, remember the word Compassion. Try to comprehend how you may feel in that person’s situation.
There is, of course every possibility that none of our employees and colleagues exhibit these kind of mental health reactions and they may also exhibit any other number of symptoms. Our job and our challenge as employers and colleagues is to respond with humility and COMPASSION.
It may be that as a leader you are not well versed in this area, and that’s OK. Take the time to read further if you like. If you really don’t feel comfortable in your ability to understand or empathise (some people genuinely cannot grasp these ideas because they’re wired differently. That’s OK too!) then get someone who is able to connect with people over these areas to deal with it on your behalf. That doesn’t make you any less of a leader – it shows that you are able to acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses as well as those of your teams and employees, enabling you to effectively deal with the challenge at hand. That is what separates a good leader from a GREAT leader.
Find more help
MIND : https://www.mind.org.uk/
MENTAL HEALTH AT WORK : https://www.mentalhealthatwork.org.uk/
MENTAL HEALTH FOUNDATION : https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/how-support-mental-health-work