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How we, as leaders, can nurture positive mental health at work

By Dr Paola Carr-Walker – Consultant Clinical Psychologist & Founder of Mental Health Now

Change is a part of life and business and the pace of change is quickening.  Managing change well means being aware of the impact it has on individuals – I like to think of this as making the workplace more human.

Over the last 15 years there have been some big advances in understanding what we can do to help people have their best mental health and thrive through change.  Based on my experience as a Clinical and Forensic Psychologist, I want to suggest some simple steps that we can all take to play our role in moving beyond policy and initiative to being leaders and role models of the change we want to see in the workplace.  This draws on the observation that change is most effective when it is open and collaborative – creating a movement that engages individuals in creating solutions rather than following a top down campaign. 

With this in mind I would like to share with you three key steps that could help to make you a role model of change. 

  1. Look after yourself – role model positive mental health care 

It is a bit like the emergency procedure on an aeroplane; ‘put on your own mask before helping others’ – you need to have good mental wellbeing yourself before you can support others effectively. 

Looking after someone else who is struggling is important but it can be a draining, so we need to feel positive and have good coping strategies in place first.  Even if you don’t feel overwhelmed, we are all vulnerable to the impact of stress and our level of mental wellness fluctuates. In the same way that we make sure we eat our five a day for our physical health, we need to take care of our mental health needs every day. 

Research by the New Economics Foundation (2008) has shown that there are five simple things we can do and incorporate into our daily lives that are related to better personal wellbeing called the Five Ways to Wellbeing. 

  1. Connect – connect with people around you
  2. Be active – physical activity suitable for your level of mobility and fitness
  3. Take notice – be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling
  4. Keep learning – set a challenge you will enjoy achieving
  5. Give – look out for others and do something nice for someone else
  1. Make it ok to talk about mental health

The Time to Change movement is working to change the way we all think and act about mental health. Their key message is that they want to end mental health discrimination by destigmatising mental health and enabling good conversations about it. 

The challenge in this is that nearly half (43%) of employees surveyed by CIPD in 2016 reported that they would not feel comfortable disclosing unmanageable stress or poor mental health to their employer or manager. They were worried about being discriminated against or harming their promotion or career opportunities.  Managers may also be reluctant to raise the issue of an employee’s mental health for fear of making matters worse or provoking legal consequences. 

There are however, great positive examples that engage colleagues in solutions.  A FTSE50 organisation I have worked with demonstrate how an employee-led change has started to reduce the stigma around mental health. In April 2017, two employees founded Great Minds – an internal resource that enabled the sharing of articles about mental health, blogs by members about their personal experiences, and the start of conversations about the issues. From the rapid growth in its use, it was evident that employees valued this support and wanted information about mental health issues. In 2018 16 employees of various job descriptions were trained in Mental Health First Aid (MHFA). These Mental Health First Aiders were able to offer support and guidance towards appropriate help for those struggling with poor mental health. This year the organisation launched its global strategy for mental health, which included rolling out training in mental health. They have signed the Time to Change pledge and have made a commitment to adhere to the Thrive at Work standards. 

  1. Take time to notice and support the mental health of others

You may feel unsure about whether you can recognise the signs and symptoms of various mental disorders, so a more straightforward question to consider about someone who might be feeling mentally unwell is ‘has there been a change in this person’s behaviour?’.  It might sound clichéd but asking them how they are feeling can help you understand what is going on. 

If you’d like to find out more, there are lots of really good trusted resources online, such as Mind and the NHS

Here are some general things that may help someone who is having mental health difficulties or managing stress:

  • Talk to a friend, family member, health professional or counsellor
  • Do calming breathing exercises or mindfulness (e.g. use a mindfulness app)
  • Look after your physical health – get enough sleep, nutritious diet, exercise
  • Give yourself a break and find balance in your life
  • Avoid unhealthy coping strategies such as drinking, taking drugs or smoking
  • Organise your time (it helps to feel more in control and able to handle pressure)
  • Address some of the causes of stress (resolve or improve the issues putting pressure on you)
  • Accept the things you can’t change (so you can focus your time and energy more productively)
  • Make reasonable work-place adjustments, e.g. flexible hours or change to start or finish times, provision of quiet rooms, extra help with managing and negotiating workload, redeployment to a more suitable role or temporarily changing duties 

Time and effort spent on supporting the mental health of our employees and ourselves helps us thrive – make it the way you do business. 

There are some wonderful examples of positive change happening across every sector however there is more we can do. Change needs role models and it needs to be positively experienced by others for a movement to be started.  The key is to just start being open about our struggles and exploring solutions together. 

So let’s leave you with a challenge.   Help make the workplace more human. Do one thing for yourself this week from the Five Ways to Wellbeing (see above) and have one conversation that you wouldn’t normally have that shows people it is ok to talk about mental health

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