The state of our mental health is not constant. We all have days where we don’t feel in the best shape and that life’s a bit of a struggle and others where everything is going well, and we feel on top of the world.
Mental health problems can be triggered by anything, for example, pressures inside work, at home or physical health conditions. With record numbers of employees now working from home, the line between personal and professional lives has become increasingly blurred, making it difficult to escape problems in either world.
It is estimated that up to 10 million people in the UK will need some form of mental health assistance because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Getting that help early will prevent these problems from becoming too serious issues and alleviate potential suffering.
Mental Health Awareness Week highlights these issues, but its important efforts are ongoing to ensure no one feels forgotten or suffers alone. Improving well-being at work when so many are predicted to suffer stress and burnout is hugely important.
The role of the line manager
In most organisations, the line manager is in the best place to be the first person to pick up if an employee is having problems with their mental health. They are the person who has the clearest view of their work, demeanour, and appearance. They are most likely to spot when things start to go awry.
However, this is often easier said than done. It can be difficult and awkward to start a conversation specifically about mental health, so we’ve created this guide to give line managers a helping hand to start the conversation and know where to turn to if they need more help and support.
What does normal look like?
Establish a baseline
To notice when something is wrong, it’s important to know what a person is like on a day-to-day basis. While some people are a bundle of energy and share details of their lives willingly, others are more subdued and guarded about what information they are happy to divulge. Everyone’s life has changed in some way over the last year and while they could appear to be coping, this may not be the case.
If your employee has shared with you that they have a diagnosed mental health condition, think about how you can best support them in their role. It is not just about looking after employees who don't normally struggle, but also about finding permanent ways to support those who have challenges that aren't temporary and may need ongoing assistance.
You may know exactly how your employees are feeling but if you think you could know more or are managing someone new, take the time to set up a chat, if possible, in person, but if not over video, to discover where they are at now. Find out how they feel about work, home life, and the future. See if there is anything they are worried about that could impact their mental health. This will help you understand how they are feeling, if they have any worries or if there are any red flags to be concerned about.
Points to remember
- Make it clear this is totally confidential and nothing will be shared further if they don’t want it to be.
- Reassure them that they will not be judged – this is a conversation to find out how you can help them bring their best selves to work.
- Pick a time which suits you both, so you won’t be disturbed, rushed or distracted.
- Share details you are happy to disclose about your own situation and state of mind to help put the employee at ease.
- Ask them about what support would be helpful if they had a problem – would they find it useful to talk to someone or prefer to read advice?
- What is the attitude to their work/life balance? Are they happy to share personal details or do they like to keep the two separate?
- An employee is not legally required to mention any medical condition they may have, be that physical or mental. Don’t push your employees to reveal anything they don’t feel comfortable sharing, just let them know how to access help on their own terms and in private.
Find out what mental health support is available at work
It’s really important that all line managers know what support their employer offers to any employees who need help with their mental health. Having this information at hand will ensure they can point employees in the right direction as soon as a situation arises, rather than being in the dark. Speak to your HR team and find it what help is available.
Questions to ask
- Ask if your company has a written mental health policy. This will state exactly what protocol line managers should follow if an employee requires mental health support. Around half of UK employers have one in place. If your company does have one, ask to have a copy. If they don’t, see if one is planned or ask them to consider creating one.
- Find out if you have an employee assistance programme (EAP). Around half of employees in the UK have access to one, but less than 5% will use them every year. These usually include some form of mental health support, which may be delivered over the phone or online and is completely confidential. Find out how employees can access it while at home or work.
- Are there any other initiatives offered to help employees, such as Mental Health First Aiders, Peer networks or Mental Health Champions? Find out if anyone in the organisation has experience or training on how to best support employees’ mental health and ensure you know how to contact them.
Keep the conversation going
Once you’ve started this dialogue it’s important to keep it going. If you have regular check-ins scheduled with your employees make a point to start each one by finding out how they feel their work is going, how things are going at home and finding out if there is anything preventing them from performing as well as they can. If you don’t ask the questions, your employee may not want to voluntarily offer up this information. This could mean the opportunity to provide early support may be missed, especially if employees are working remotely and can hide their appearance or body language.
If you don’t already have regular updates, schedule these on a timescale that works for you both. These don’t need to be about work, they can just be about two people catching up if that feels more natural. The important thing is to find a cycle and format that you are both comfortable with.
Possible clues to look for
There are various signs that may indicate a person could be struggling with their mental health.
- Poor concentration levels
- Finding it more difficult to make decisions
- Loss of interest in their work or colleagues
- Feeling overwhelmed by their workload
- Becoming more tearful
- Tiredness and a general lack of energy
- Becoming more withdrawn
- Finding it difficult to get a good night’s sleep
- Losing their temper more easily and becoming more prickly/sensitive
This list is by no means exhaustive and even if an employee is exhibiting one or two of these it does not mean they have a problem. Therefore, having the baseline is important. It is about a change from their usual behaviour. For example, some people feel very self-conscious about having their video turned on during calls. The fact they have it turned off does not automatically mean they are struggling with their mental health; it could just be a bad hair day. However, if they start to never use it, this might be a clue that things aren’t right.
If you notice an employee is starting to exhibit a few of these signs, then they may need help to make them feel like themselves again.
Once you’ve identified a possible problem, you need to make sure you do something about it. Ignoring it and hoping it will go away by itself is not the answer and is unlikely to work. Chances are if a problem is not addressed, it is likely to get worse. Early intervention is likely to minimise distress and improve the outcome for the employee.
- Find a suitable time to talk to the employee to discover if there really is a problem.
- Listen to what they have to say and encourage them to disclose the full picture and all the factors that are contributing to the problem. For example, a quarter of employees report that money worries have affected their ability to do their job. It’s important to uncover the root cause of the problem so you can help find a long-lasting solution.
- If the issue is work-related, discuss with the employee how you can lighten the load. Do their objectives need adjusting? Can some tasks be delegated to others in the team? Is a clash of personalities the problem? Find out the issue and plan how you can resolve it.
- Speak to your HR team to see what support and guidance they can offer you as the manager. This will ensure you don’t take the whole burden on yourself and they can advise you of the best course of action in line with company and legal guidelines.
- Schedule follow up check-ins to monitor progress to see how the situation is changed. Make sure the employee knows that you are there to help and find a solution.
- Encourage the employee to access the mental health support that your organisation offers. If none is available, there are still plenty of places where they can get help. Here are some useful links to helplines and other resources that might be useful:
Important things to remember
- Everyone is different and mental health is very personal. Treat everyone as an individual.
- Listening is key. Giving employees’ a safe place to talk is a good place to start solving any problems.
- Mental health is an umbrella term under which sits many different conditions, resist the urge to diagnose your employees’ problems – leave that to professionals.
- Mental health fluctuates naturally, don’t jump in with both feet as soon as you spot a possible problem, let your employee know there is support if they need it.
- Keep talking. It’s easy to let things slide but regular conversations are vital for ensuring well-being at work.
- Looking after our mental health effectively is about recognising what helps us to climb out of the troughs and how we can maintain the peaks as much as possible.