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Monday, 26 October 2015

Managing Mental Illness: The Business Case for Supportive Line Management

I'm pretty exhausted this week, honestly, because I did a number of evening engagements either related to work and mental health or work and the digital learning and change role that I have as my 'day job'. By Wednesday I had worked about 30 hours, travelled to multiple locations and talked a lot about mental health. And if you read my post last week on burnout, you'll probably be aware that too much of that busy-ness is not good for me (or any of us actually) in any respect - mental health, physical health, whatever.

Nike Self-tying laces (in honour of Back to the Future, of course!)
If Nike could also produce self-showering, self-dressing,
self-makeup, etc. I think they'd really be onto something...

If I am going to continue to be okay, then I have to recognise that whether I feel tired or not on weeks like that, to avoid a mega crash into depression or a buzzing anxiety that I can't shake.

And in case you've forgotten or didn't know, here are the stats:
I and everyone need to take care of our health, and
we need respect and support, not inequality and discrimination

So this is going to be (read: is intended to be, and then laugh at me 1000 words later) a short post, and I'm grateful to Isabella Goldie whom I heard present at DIDLAW's Mental Health Disabilities and Stress At Work conference on Wednesday, for providing me with all the fire for my #redefiningresilience engine. I came away from that conference buzzing in every particle by the inspiring people standing up and saying "we need to do more" to support colleagues, managers, peers, team members to live in a mentally healthy work environment and be able to seek help

without feeling ashamed or repulsed by themselves, or feeling shamed or unsupported by their employer for doing so.

When I was sick last year I had several experiences with line managers - some very, very good, and some not so good at all. At a critical point with my mental health where I absolutely knew that I could not carry on living with such symptoms of depression pervading my existence, I am fortunate enough to have had the following resources to help me reach for help rather than (perhaps fatal) harm. But without supportive line managers I might not be here writing this.

The key message of this post is: we need line managers (US readers, line manager = supervisor, i.e. the person directly in charge of you and what you do at work)  to make it their business to educate themselves about mental health; and if they are approached by someone to talk about mental health, then they don't need to demonstrate a working knowledge of Jeffrey Young's 'schemas' or practise CBT, but they do need to be empathetic, provide safe boundaries for people to share their mental health experiences and then continue to be treated with the same respect as before, while incorporating appropriate reasonable adjustments to continue with work.

I am a line manager with several team members working with me or for me, depending on how you look at it, on lots of different projects. I recognise that I am a small fish in a very big corporate pond. I've been managing teams or individuals for over five years now, and I admit I was highly ineffective in certain respects during my early experiences, and hope that I have now made sufficient improvements that can be seen by the people whom I manage as supporting, respecting and empowering them to succeed in whatever they are doing.

You and I and everyone we know has a responsibility to

 create supportive 'moments' which make our lives easier, healthier and allow us to thrive.

With a view to keeping this post short (for my health) here are some things that I've found helpful as an employee, and following that a few things I think are needed from line managers.

If line managers aren't supportive, I know from personal experience, employees like me don't recover well, may not recover, may leave the organisation, and may even consider / attempt suicide out of desperation. Please remember that - this is about life or death in some cases. You as a line manager have a chance to make the biggest difference of all to someone's working life.

Here are some anonymous real quotations from people about the negative impact of unsupportive or unhelpful behaviour from line managers at work:

Something similar to this happened to me. It made me feel:
  • that the stress was all my fault and was 
  • a point of performance feedback (even when I knew it shouldn't be)
  • ashamed of having failed at work
  • disgusted with myself
  • a complete waste of time
  • ready to die

I would find it hard to stay in a job where I wasn't supported to be me, depression and all, but many people do that and keep pushing even though they are feeling horrific. Which makes them more ill. It saddens me and angers me that people are not listened to and supported when a few small things could make a huge difference - and is both the right thing to do and the right "business" decision: the average cost of losing an employee through attrition (related to anything) is £38K. If we can stop people feeling unsupported and make people healthier and happier, everybody wins.

One of the commonest things I hear from people sharing their stories with me is the constant contact from work asking when they are coming back. Of course this question needs to be asked and contact - supportive, not harassing contact - is helpful. But does that question need to be asked that day/ every day? More tips on what to do below, but really, just consider how you'd feel if the day after breaking your leg, your line manager called you to see when you could come back to work (and you work in an active job, let's say). Appropriate? Absolutely not. Did you know that you can identify a family member to be your point of contact while you're out and recovering? You can, and totally stepping away from work when you're really ill might be the best medicine you can take.

There are many resources available to help you as a line manager to feel more comfortable that you understand the issues of mental illness to some extent, and that you also understand the role that you have to play as a line manager in engaging with mental health at work (either on an individual basis or in general) in such a way that you make it easier to talk about, reduce health problems associated with the strain of hiding such a condition or "presenteeism" and support those with more serious conditions with respect. By according them with dignity and helping them work as much as they can, they can feel safe in the knowledge that you are on their side just as much as on the side of the organisation you both work for.

1. Remember that 'employees' are people above all else. Listen to them. Respect them.

We are all going to have events in our lives that make work tough. I'm not just talking about mental health, I'm talking about life events such as having a baby, meeting a new partner, breaking up with a partner, losing someone, being ill physically, and so on... When you show that you are listening, rather than judging, or behaving as if having a conversation with your team is not valuable to you, you will build trust with your employees and in every way (including health, of course) you will make for a more flourishing team, who trusts you and feels so much more comfortable belonging at work.

2. Show and tell: make sure your employees know - from you - that you value them

Working long hours, with tight deadlines can cause us all to feel the pressure and at times we might not have a great day (or a great week etc.) because of this. Showing empathy to your employees and highlighting again and again that you value them and continue to value them provides a hugely supportive working environment. When I was teaching 11-16 year-olds, I was a strict disciplinarian, but having established those rules in my classroom my students felt 'safe' because they absolutely knew the status quo. From that structure of safe and firm boundaries they were able to be creative, try new things, be rowdy (sometimes, yes, I can still hear the ringing in my ears) and be their 'whole selves' in a way that helped them to learn and grow at school. We can do this as employers / line managers / colleagues and show people we are glad they're there, and we want them to stay.

3. Take some responsibility for your employees' wellbeing.

This might sound like a no-brainer, but the word 'resilience' which I'm campaigning to redefine is so, so often used as a term that it is expected that employees will demonstrate, relieving organisations of all responsibility. This is not acceptable. Every employee is responsible for taking care of him / herself. But every organisation is also responsible for providing support. Line managers are (literally) at the front of the line in terms of managerial hierarchies, and so must, must commit to providing a supportive work environment. As I said above, line managers don't need to be experts in mental health, but do, for example, have a responsibility to understand the organisation's sickness and absence policy, return to work policy and have some idea of the key contacts (like HR) who can sign off on supportive reasonable adjustments to make an employee's working life so much better whether they're in work, returning to work, or off sick. 

Also, manage your projects or your team's time effectively: in my opinion there's no excuse for poor project planning which mismanages everyone's expectations and can make people very sick. It also sets very poor expectations for clients- they think they can get x done for y price, but actually if they paid for all the hours really worked it might be double that... And so next time, trying to have a properly planned project, if you tell them the real cost, they won't want to pay. And as for your employees: if they're anything like me, (or how I used to be)  they'll work all hours to get it done for you at the expense of their life and their health. 

Returning to Work

4. Be Flexible and Make Reasonable Adjustments

I think this slide speaks for itself:

5. Ask for help - because you also deserve support!

No one expects you as a line manager to be able to do this all yourself either. Like I said above, this isn't about making the employee 100% responsible for his or her work life, but it isn't all your responsibility either, and you need to make sure you're okay too, as a line manager, as an employee. As a person.
There are many resources out there to help you which DIDLAW Education can help you to find, and the Mental Health Foundation, where I got these slides from, and from Mind, Mausdley Learning, Connecting with People, and so on. Your employer should also have some training available, or support you to attend training to learn more about this. You are not alone in this, and you can make a massive difference.

So as you go into Monday, please bear in mind the above, and remember that you and everyone matters - so please be kind, and be kind to yourself too, as always.


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