Managers’ Tips for Mental Health Support

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5 Must-Do’s to Support Colleagues with Mental Illness

This coming week my manager – B – will be on holiday. I’ll be stepping into her shoes and managing our team of 20 people; it’s a daunting and exciting prospect.

I’ve been deputising for her on and off over the past year, but I’ve not yet had the challenge of becoming acting manager for a whole week on my own.

I would not have been able to get to this point without B’s support and encouragement. Her treatment of me and my Mental Health has been second to none and I’m so grateful to have her as my manager.

What better post to start with, then, than my 5 Must-Do’s for supporting Colleagues with Mental Health Conditions:

1) Know Your Colleagues

Everyone working in finance will have heard of KYC guidelines- Know Your Customer. KYC helps bank tellers and account admins prevent fraud and money laundering.

The idea is you become fluent in your customers’ habits and behaviours. That way, you can spot early warning signs of problems and prevent losses to the bank.

You can also use this principle to be on the lookout for issues within your team. Small changes in someone’s behaviour can be a big tip-off that they are struggling to cope.

You don’t have observe everyone every minute of every day (who has the brain power to do that?) but you can use your monthly 1-2-1 meetings and job performance data to proactively encourage your colleagues to think about their wellbeing, and catch crises early.

B now knows me well enough to know if something’s wrong. For instance, I get very uncomfortable when I’m praised and most of the time, I cry a little… don’t ask. If I give no reaction and have a dead or vacant look? It’s highly likely I’m having a tough day, and I’m zoning out to cope with it.

If you get to know the people that report to you, you’ll be in more prepared position to prevent crises before they spin out of control.

2) Do Your Research

There are many mental health conditions. Some are more likely to impact someone’s performance and wellbeing than others. Even within a given condition, different people will experience it in different ways.

When one of your team discloses that they are struggling with their mental health, do what you can to find out about their condition, and how you can help. This will let them know that you care about them enough to try and do your best to help them.

You don’t have to become an expert in the topic – you just need to gain enough knowledge to make good decisions.

When I told B about my history of Psychosis, the first thing she said was “Okay, tell me more about how that affects you”. I had never been treated with such respect by a manager, and it instantly increased my respect for (and trust in) her.

Google their diagnosis, if they have one. Ask them what it’s like for them experiencing it. Attend a Mental Health First Aid course. Check your company’s intranet for resources you can signpost them to.

Knowledge is power, and the more knowledge you have about someone’s Illness, the more tools you’ll find to help them combat it.

3) Be Authentic

When someone tells you they are struggling, trust is everything. Trust me when I say it took great courage for them to decide to tell you. They are reaching out in need.

They are trying to work through it. Their trust in you may be what allows them to do that. Don’t hinder that trust by hiding your feelings or lying to them.

Be honest – say what you mean and mean what you say. If you say you’ll look for external support, do it. Keep your promises.

If they are talking to you about difficult things and that makes you feel sad, that’s fine. Tell them you are hurt on their behalf. That you’re sad they are going through it. Cry with them if that’s where their struggles take you. Authenticity breeds empathy, and empathy breeds trust.

One of the most memorable exchanges I’ve had with B happened shortly after my Nan died last year. My Mum sent me a bag of my Nan’s things and they still smelled like her. That silly bag of stuff sent my mind into a tailspin.

The next day, I was a mess. I couldn’t focus on anything other than my grief. B took me for a walk and let me chew her ear off about how much I’d loved my Nan. When we finished the walk, I looked at B and saw tears in her eyes.

Far from taking the focus off my pain and putting the spotlight on her, B’s incredible empathy really touched me. I felt validated instead of stupid.

Rewarding your colleagues’ trust will mean that they will come to you in future – and that might just be what enables them to get help.

4) Don’t Assume We Can’t Do Our Jobs

It’s great that you want to help your colleagues, but don’t fall into the trap of mollycoddling them.

Don’t take away every stressful or difficult task or, worse still, refuse point-blank to let them take on extra responsibilities.

More often than not, it is the more difficult or complex work that yields greater satisfaction and meaning. Knowing they do a tough job well can really give people something to hang onto in dark times.

Obviously, it is not good if their work is so challenging or pressured that it leaves them constantly anxious. Rather than just taking away everything difficult, try to take a balanced view of their workload and see what other tasks you can give them instead.

B did not stop me taking on the more important projects. She encouraged me to stretch and challenge myself. Her approach was not to take away the challenges, but to help me have enough self-belief so I could overcome them.

Consequently, I’m now coping better than I ever have previously. Her belief in my ability has let me develop resilience.

5) Make Sure You’re Also Supported

It’s hard enough to bear your own cross. With a large team, though, I imagine it can feel like you’re spinning 20 plates at once.

How do you keep all those plates on their sticks? How do you stop yourself dropping one of them?

To help your team thrive, you need to keep your own sanity. You will be of no help to anyone if you work yourself til you’re burned-out.

Make sure you know what support programs are in place in your office. Is there a helpline you can ring? A dedicated HR Mental Health line? Can you request catch-ups and coaching time with your seniors? Can you delegate certain tasks to your deputy?

Look into these options and see what you can implement. I highly recommend keeping a list of handy numbers and websites which are dedicated to supporting mental health.

It can be hard not to spread yourself thin, but it’s really important you get the support you need to help your colleagues effectively.

Manager or Leader?

Over the last year, B has shown me she’s not just a manager – she’s a leader. She’s empathetic, authentic, supportive and encouraging.

If it hadn’t been for her excelling in the 5 areas I’ve highlighted in this post, I probably wouldn’t be in this position now. I probably would have had to take sick leave, and may well have crumbled under all the pressures and difficulties of the past year.

As it stands, I’m really excited for this coming week. I feel like I’m ready to take on the challenge of filling her shoes and showing that her faith in me wasn’t misplaced.

I’m looking forward to proving to her that her approach has paid off.

Thanks for reading.

Until the next post!

Bronwyn @ LBT x

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