Society, values and how they’ve contributed to poor mental health in the workplace

Employers are beginning to speak the language of wellbeing but it’s not translating into meaningful change

Here is a presentation I was asked to do recently at a workplace wellbeing conference:

I was asked to focus on the role of line managers in talking about the wellbeing agenda and consider the action they can take and difference they can make. But first I’d like to talk about some of the broader issues I think are relevant which have to be considered first in order to make the most impact.

In a way, as a society, we have created the conditions that cause poor workplace wellbeing. We promote values of success, competitiveness, having more, being the best. There is an idea that work should come first. No matter what. Is that a British phenomenon or a Western one?

In order to address change, in order to develop bold and innovative action to improve wellbeing in the workplace there must be a cultural shift both how we view mental health and how we view the workplace.

Because in the midst of such values I believe we have lost some sense of what it is to be human. We have constructed ideas about mental health being a separate topic that affects some of us, when actually it is much deeper than that: It is something which is inherently part of each of us, a part of our humanity.

We have lost some sense of what it is to be human.

So, when we consider wellbeing and positive mental health we need to think of each and every member of the workplace. Even the most seemingly healthy.

I think it is also useful to think beyond the individual. It is important to consider the workplace as a whole beating organism in it’s own right. If the wellbeing settings are not right culturally, if the values and principles are not working as a whole, then the impact of wellbeing initiatives are going to be limited. In addition, I believe if we get the wellbeing settings right it will only serve to benefit this whole organism, contributing to its success and sustainability.

a whole beating organism

With these ideas in mind I welcome the theme of Business in the Community’s Mental Health at Work Report 2019: Time to Take Ownership. It was noted in the executive summary that the workplace is contributing to ‘the psychological harm experienced by staff through poor business practices and culture’.  In addition the Report has found that the figures for poor mental health due to work have sadly increased.

Last year’s report found a similar trend. It noted that ‘workplace wellbeing initiatives were failing to deliver’. Employers are beginning to speak the language of wellbeing but unfortunately this is often not translating into meaningful change.

So my first piece of advice would have to be for an organisation to consider their underpinning values and principles in relation to wellbeing and consider if they are drivers of sound and meaningful change. Considering the costs involved from mental ill health in the workplace – an investment into wellbeing practices that work are both cost effective and ethical.

Investing in wellbeing is cost effective and ethical

Now, let’s consider more specifically the role of the line manager.
In many respects line managers have the most difficult jobs. Accountable to both decision makers and staff, not always able to change the culture of an organisation, but having responsibility to deliver upon it. They are expected to support staff with the framework they’ve been dealt. With one hand they’re expected to promote a wellbeing agenda, with the other ensure targets are delivered upon, deadlines met. Line managers often have to wear so many hats they are at risk of experiencing stress themselves.

When line managers are recruited I don’t think some of the softer skills needed to promote wellbeing are considered. A line manager needs to be passionate about the wellbeing of their team and have a genuine desire to consider wellness over productivity.

A line manager needs training to understand what wellbeing means and what the best techniques are to communicate effectively with staff. But the quality of that training is very important. Innovative training is required (hello!) that helps managers to truly understand what mental health is, how we all have mental health and what causes mental health issue’s – i.e less medical model thinking and more social model thinking. A lot of training is concerned more with labels and diagnosis. And while this is undeniably important, training needs to be broader and more dynamic. For example, a lot of mental health issues are triggered by social factors: divorce, debt, workplace stress, poverty, chronic health. Life issues. By understanding such factors managers may be able to direct staff towards practical support. In addition, understanding mental health from a more social perspective helps people to recognise the humanity of this topic.

Line managers cannot be expected to be therapists but their approach can make a huge difference to the outcomes they produce.

In terms of the day to day factors that can help promote wellbeing I would recommend having wellbeing on the team meeting and supervision agenda. In addition to offer things like mindfulness sessions, team building days, and consider how wellbeing activities might fit into the workplace setting on a regular basis. What that looks like will of course vary for each organisation and the fit needs to be right for them.

Ultimately the more mental health becomes part of our normal workplace conversations the easier it will be for people to be upfront about their issues. Here we can build confidence and reduce stigma. I think it takes time to embed, but over time wellbeing will feel like a more regular aspect of working life.

Some of you may be aware that I am a solution-focused therapist. The techniques used within this model are particularly useful for supporting staff. The techniques can be used to both support staff through a difficult period with their mental health but is also great as a career development tool.

Any line manager can adopt some of the basic elements of the techniques within this therapy model to support staff. Of course, it needs to start with the manager being a good listener and making time to hear what staff need to say. But in addition I believe they need to take an approach that fosters empowerment, supporting the person to recognise the skills and strengths they have already and to consider what kinds of things would help improve their situation personally.

That isn’t to say we should be expecting staff to just manage their mental health and get on with it, far from it. But we need to recognise individuals as the experts of their experiences and support them to find the resources to get better that are right for them and to manage what are often complex and fluctuating conditions.

It should involve asking open questions to gain a fuller understanding of the person’s situation. What is working, what is helping and what do we as the employer need to be aware of?

A very helpful way of supporting staff through a mental health crisis is flexible working. Many employers are sceptical about flexible working. And if this is the case then it might reflect back on those values I talked about earlier. There is often an idea that staff cannot be trusted to manage their time, or to work effectively when given more control. When in fact I believe that thinking in this way is more likely to cause staff to work from a perspective of disempowerment and in these conditions we foster helplessness. We need to work more closely with principles such as self-management, accountability and responsibility. It isn’t about having a member of staff sitting at a desk 8 hours per day. It is about the productivity and passion that comes from trusting staff and giving them power within their roles.

Flexible working – what does that mean? It can mean different things for different organisations. Essentially I would suggest that if a staff member asks for flexible working  -be open and supportive to it and ask them what they are looking for exactly and how that will help them. It’s important to have a clear contract as to expectations on both sides. For example, it could mean agreeing a staff member can work from home at particular times.

On a final note I would just like to add that much of what I am saying here, and no doubt what many other mental health professionals are also saying, is that it’s good to talk and a lot of the work we’re doing here is about encouraging people to talk. However, it’s important to point out that sometimes people don’t want to talk and that’s ok too. We need to build the conditions where people feel safe to talk and know they will get the support they need if they do. At the same time, mental health can be painful and sometimes coming to work and giving those complex issues some out can be helpful too. Sometimes, it’s ok not to talk..

To discuss any of these issues further or to find out how I can support your organisation please go to my website www.blackdog.org.uk for more info, or contact me on 07810 823529/blackdogwales@gmail.com

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