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Mental Health Awareness Week: advice for managers

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 12 May 2023

Stress, overwhelm and burnout are on the increase – so what are the best ways to help our employees, colleagues and workplace friends nurture good mental health?

Our mental wellbeing is constantly being tested, but against a backdrop of economic uncertainty, financial pressures and the cost-of-living crisis – all on the back of post-COVID-19 readjustment – it is no wonder that levels of anxiety are on the rise, making it one of the most common mental health disorders in the UK.

Nick Elston knows all too well the crippling effects of anxiety, having suffered with poor mental health for years. Today, he uses his experiences to help others and is now a leading public speaker on the lived experience of mental health.

With Mental Health Awareness Week upon us, showing support is essential, but companies must resist the urge to superficially tie their colours to the mast and instead have meaningful support mechanisms in place to help struggling employees, Elston warns.

Zoe Thompson, self-development coach and Trainer at Phoenix Life and Wellbeing Coaching, agrees. “As an organisation, it’s important to talk about mental health and raise awareness, but if you are talking about things that have a potential to trigger, you need mechanisms in place to continue the conversation if someone admits they have a problem or makes a disclosure,” she says.

It’s important to signpost, clearly and effectively to the support in place – whether that’s an Employee Assistance programme, coaching and counselling or access to wellbeing apps. Making sure you engage in regular dialogue with staff about the kind of support they need is essential to making sure the support is actually used. It’s important to remember that it’s not one size fits all, Thompson says.

Make sure your support is not all crisis driven: steer away from branding, comms and images that are all of people in despair, which puts people off using them because they often don’t relate to the images or don’t want to be associated with them for fear of stigma or judgement, says Petra Velzeboer, a psychotherapist, CEO of mental health consultancy PVL and author of Begin With You.

“Having a balance of images and language that is about success, performance and feeling healthy and good helps people see where they want to get to and that approach is more hopeful and useful for sustaining success and performance long term,” she says.

If staff aren't engaging, try to understand why and do something about it; it could be that the services you offer are not fit for purpose or there may be a culture where people don’t feel that it’s okay to ask for help. “There’s a personal responsibility and there’s a duty of care and you have to tick both boxes if the process is going to work,” Thompson says. 

At an organisational level, harnessing lived experience is a powerful way to increase engagement, and using the stories of your own staff gives others permission to talk about their own experiences. Do not underestimate the stigma that people continue to feel, despite a ramping up of conversations about mental health. 

“The term ‘mental health’ is very often used as a diagnosis when actually, it’s a neutral state. Just like physical health, it can be good or bad. I think our choice of language in the engagement process is crucial,” Elston says. 

At an individual level, how can we as colleagues, friends or managers support people by preventing them from getting to that crisis point in the first place, particularly as many people won’t show signs and symptoms of anxiety or mental health issues as their mask is firmly in place? 

Confidentiality concerns are a common concern for choosing not to engage with the support on offer, Elston says, so it’s important to reassure employees that use of any support services will remain anonymous. “People are afraid that it’s going to be highlighted on some systems somewhere and they’re going to get sacked.

Creating a safe space to open up is essential – and that starts with you. “When you are comfortable opening up about your life challenges, this models behaviour and also builds trust so that the other person can bring their challenges to the table,” Velzeboer adds.

The rise of virtual working makes it more important than ever for managers to be proactive in checking in with their staff. Asking if people are okay is good, but you need to keep asking because most people won’t open up the first time that you ask them. “That’s not something you can assign to a random mental health first aider. It needs to be with somebody who has a relationship with that person because the reasons why people share anything is trust and rapport. If they feel safe, they will share,” Elston says.

Picking up on the tell-tale signs of a mental health decline can act as a prompt to have a conversation. It’s about noticing any changes in those behaviours that may suggest that something is not okay, Thompson says, whether that’s being more vocal, or more withdrawn, disengaged, procrastinating, struggling with motivation, a feeling of imposter syndrome, or simply not feeling the usual sense of self-satisfaction when they finish a piece of work.

“The biggest negative impact of poor mental health is how it affects your confidence, your courage and your conviction,” Elston says. Insecurity, a constant need for reassurance or praise, or even defensive or aggressive behaviour, lethargy or lack of energy are all potential red flags. 

“The challenge with a lot of declining mental health is that people find it difficult to articulate because they can’t make sense of it and because it’s not logical,” Thompson says. “As a manager, if somebody comes to you and says, ‘I feel a bit meh when I finish a bit of work’, what do you do with that?” 

It’s important not to try and fix symptoms, diminish them or offer an Instagram-tactic for how they ‘should’ feel better or what breathing exercise they should do, Velzeboer says. “Most people simply want someone to listen, not judge them and normalise their experience. Validating their feelings is more important than giving them a trite solution and tying up the conversation with a bow on it – more often than not this helps you feel good about yourself rather than them. 

“As a rule, helping people feel seen, heard and valued enables them to accept themselves and gives them permission to take responsibility for their mental health.”

Mental health & wellbeing

ICAEW works with caba to promote the mental health of chartered accountants and their families. Take a look through these articles, guides, webinars and events.

ICAEW mental health wellbeing team bonding communication

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