While businesses had put more emphasis on mental wellbeing over the past few years, it was the pandemic that thrust the issue into the spotlight. According to CMI research, almost two-thirds (62%) of managers believe the wellbeing/mental health of their team had been or would be impacted by a return to the workplace.
CMI has also found that 72% of employees rated their wellbeing as a top priority for managers. “Wellbeing is firmly on CMI’s agenda and we're encouraging other employers to do the same,” says Ann Francke, CMI’s chief executive. “Some studies have shown that fewer than half of all employers have a formalised mental health and wellbeing strategy. And yet the impact of mental health on UK employers and the economy is enormous.”
Mental health issues cost the economy around £45bn a year, it is estimated. Over 17.5 million days were lost to work-related stress, depression and anxiety. CMI has partnered with digital mental health and wellbeing company Kooth to provide CMI members and learners access to all of its mental health and wellbeing, support, advice and resources.
In a recent CMI webinar, It’s OK To Not Be OK, Ann Francke spoke with Kooth’s chief clinical officer Dr Lynne Green, and Louise Powell, head of partner development and apprenticeships for Specsavers, about spotting the signs of stress and declining mental health in ourselves and in our colleagues.
The right time for the conversation
For Dr Green, this conversation couldn’t come soon enough. The mental health community has been pushing for greater emphasis on mental wellbeing in the workplace for some time, but it hasn’t really translated into action on the part of organisations. This pandemic is forcing managers to make changes.
She would like business leaders to start looking at employee wellbeing and company performance as intrinsically linked. Mental health strategies and financial strategies should be two sides of the same coin, she says.
“Stigma around mental health remains. The situation is certainly better than it was, but there is still a stigma. “It’s almost a double-whammy of stigma, being perceived as somebody who brings all their mental health problems to work and the perceived anxieties around being seen as a weak link or being passed over for promotion because you've got mental health difficulties. It's one of the reasons why our service is anonymous.”
Much of the work that Specsavers has done in this area has involved helping managers feel comfortable having a conversation about mental health. The line manager is the face of the organisation for most employees; it’s where these difficult conversations take place. But sometimes managers are asking questions when they don’t really want to hear the answer. By helping managers understand how to ask the right questions and in the right way, the entire organisation responds to mental health in a more productive way.
“We're not psychologists, but we are human beings,” she says. “Actually being able to empathise with somebody and not always go straight into ‘fix’ mode; that is always the place that we as managers move to. That's not always what you need to do. Sometimes it is just about listening to what is causing those concerns inside and outside of work.”
Specsavers subscribes to the ‘put your mask on first’ approach and has encouraged managers to take steps to look after their own mental health, taking regular breaks and talking openly about issues. “One of the things that really moved the dial for us post-pandemic is our leaders being slightly vulnerable and recognising that it's been a really hard period of time.”
Francke agreed, explaining that she is honest when she needs to step away from her work, and when she isn’t having a good day. “It’s important for leaders to be role models for that; encouraging our people to take breaks. We need to do more of that.”
Spotting the signs of mental ill-health
Dr Green believes that mental health is a spectrum, and our position on that spectrum depends on what’s going on in our lives. It can be difficult to spot the signs that someone on our team is struggling, as it can manifest itself in many ways. But these are some signs that something might be amiss:
- Increased irritability
- Difficulties in making firm decisions
- Over-worrying about things
- Physical health indicators – constant complaints about headache, backache etc
- Constant tiredness
One of the biggest indicators is an overall change in presentation – that sometimes could seem like a positive change, so is easy to miss, says Dr Green.
For example, if a really high-performing and proactive team member starts to withdraw and become less productive, it might set off alarm bells. But a team member suddenly throwing themselves into lots of extra work, that may also be a sign that something is off. “We know that many people who are under stress or anxious can feel that they're not performing; they then often put so much pressure on themselves and over-compensate. But all this could be masking a whole host of underlying worries and symptoms.”
Managing stress day-to-day
Louise Powell asks her team to rate their happiness on a scale of one to ten in their one-to-ones. It opens up a lot of conversations. If people score themselves at a six or lower, Powell asks: what’s stopping you from being a ten? This encourages discussion of specific issues and events that are having an impact on their mental health. “It gives you an idea of where people are sitting at emotionally throughout that process.”
Secondly, it’s about having regular conversations in general; asking how things are going in general, and if team members need any support. “Continuing to talk has to be the underlying thing that just makes it work for me and my team.”