Mental health is a topic that’s, thankfully, being talked about a lot more in recent times, particularly since the start of the pandemic. But there’s still a certain amount of reticence among some employers when it comes to opening up about mental health. Having workable wellbeing strategies is a move in the right direction, allowing employees to be more open about their own mental health and stress-related issues.

Morisha Christy talks about why every business needs to have a proper mental health first aid practice in place.

What is mental health?
Mental health, as defined by the World Health Organisation, is a state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community. 

Breaking the taboo around mental health
The mental health of your team is so critical to any business, especially at the moment. There’s always been a taboo around talking about our mental health, but that’s something we need to get over. If you broke your leg, there would be no embarrassment in having this physical problem. But with a mental health issue, we do feel reluctant to talk about it – and that’s something that can hold people back from seeking help and getting well again. As employers we need to encourage openness and invite our staff to share any issues.

There are, of course, diagnosed medical mental health illnesses that can affect certain people and for which professional help is needed. But there are also mental health issues that come about through undue stress and pressure, either through work or personal life. If people are pushed too hard, the cracks can start to show, and it’s our job – as business owners and employers – to take care of our staff properly.

We should be doing whatever we can to:

  • Spot the signs of mental health issues – by keeping an eye on our team and making sure we’re aware of the tell-tale signs when people are anxious, stressed or sick.
  • Support our staff fully – by offering proper mental health services, providing forums for people to talk and allowing people the time and space to get better.
  • Make sure people don’t get pushed too hard – by monitoring the hours people are working, the pressure they’re under and the overall working conditions that employees find themselves in when working.

Looking for the first signs of mental health issues
Spotting the signs of a mental health problem within your team isn’t easy. How do you keep tabs on people and have that oversight of their state of mind? And how do you do this without people feeling like they are being micromanaged or wrapped up in cotton wool?

Keeping tabs on people has been even more difficult during the Covid pandemic. With many people working from their own home, or reduced numbers of people in the workplace, we just don’t get to see what people are doing – and that can be a real barrier. If you’re sitting next to someone each day, you are more likely to notice the key signs of a problem. For example, people may start making more mistakes. They may be coming into work later. Or they may be looking stressed and acting more withdrawn than usual.

As employers and managers, we should be trained to spot the signs of poor mental health and then how to manage it without making it worse. You should show empathy and choose your words wisely. It’s about knowing how to manage the conversation, offering real support and making people feel able to talk. If you can achieve this, you really can help. 

Key ways to improve your mental health support
Some companies are well prepared for dealing with employee’s mental health, while some are just not set up to deal with the reality of a person who needs mental health support.

To improve the well-being of your staff:

  • Keep in touch with your team – during these challenging lockdown times, it’s vital to stay in touch with everyone on your staff. Don’t just focus on business interactions either. In your team meetings, interact on a social level too and get to know your people better. 
  • Have more 1-2-1 conversations – having regular team meetings is a good thing, but there will always be a need for 1-2-1 conversations. These need to be face-to-face, really, but that may not be possible during the pandemic. Zoom or Microsoft Teams video calls are preferable, as you can hide things on a phone call and you (as the manager) may not see the full story.
  • Get staff to support each other – a good team spirit goes a long way to improving people’s state of mind. Encourage people to break out among themselves and to be as social as possible. Encourage video meetings or, at least, calls with each other. If someone has an issue, it’s more likely to come through when you can see them. 
  • Don’t rely purely on email communication – emails don’t always tell you the complete story. It’s very easy to hide your stress, worry or anxiety in an email. So make sure you call people, talk to them in person, or use video calls and messaging apps to get into a proper conversation with the people in your team. 

At Praxis, we have a regular social call where we just chat as a firm. That’s our ‘company huddle’ and a time to check in on everyone. Sometimes people may be ill or can’t attend, but we want everyone to be there if they can. You might notice if one member of the team is quiet and can then have a private chat with them afterwards. We also have moved staff socials online such as escape rooms or quizzes to chat outside of the workplace.

The need for mental health first aid in the workplace
Good mental health is so important to me, for a number of reasons. And I strongly believe that we need ‘mental health first aid’ to be a standard thing in every workplace.

As a business, it’s mandatory to have a first aid plan. That means having adequate facilities for coping if people get injured or are taken ill at work. But these first aid plans only deal with the physical side of an illness, not with your employees’ mental health. To me, that’s a failing and something that we need to improve as a business community.

During lockdown, I signed up as a volunteer with my local council and, as part of this, I took part in a half-day course in mental health first aid. It was a really good course that opened my eyes to how we can support people with mental health issues. I think every business should have at least one person who’s trained in mental health first aid. Someone who can spot those signs and who knows how to manage the situation. 

I am honoured to be a listening volunteer for the Samaritans charity, following an intensive training course. Being a Samaritan has taught me the power of listening. As people, we’re all very quick to offer advice but, actually, when people are struggling with their mental health, often they just want and need to talk and share. I’m a solutions person and problem solver, but that’s not a good thing to do when someone is feeling anxious or vulnerable. I have learned to just listen, just be and to allow them to offload, without judgement and without trying to ‘fix them’. 

Just having a conversation can make people feel so much better. You may not feel that you’ve done anything tangible, but just by listening you’ve done something incredibly important, that can make such a difference. 

Coming together to improve our mental health
During the pandemic, we’ve all felt the impact on our mental health. It’s been a tough time for everyone, with some people living alone, some people trying to manage home-working and home-schooling, some suffering loss of loved ones, and all of us feeling the emotional impact of this terrible virus.

We’re getting better, as bosses, at dealing with mental health and being aware of the benefits of caring for your staff. But, as a business community, we can do better. Your people are your most valuable resource, so we need to increase our empathy, listen more and offer the kinds of mental health first aid that our people may need from time to time. We need to get away from the taboos around mental health and come together to create a better, more supportive working environment.

We’re told we can ‘do it all’ and be a superhero, but, in my opinion, the pace of life is now too fast. Let’s take the time to slow down, listen and smell the roses.

If you’re suffering from a mental health issue, or want to improve your mental health support, there are plenty of groups and support people you can talk to:

About the author

Morisha has over 30 years’ experience in practice as a Chartered Accountant. She enjoys finding solutions to problems.

Outside of work Morisha enjoys a challenge and being taken outside of her comfort zone. She volunteers for several charities such as the Samaritans, the Princes Trust and Crisis, as she believes that supporting our youth, supporting good mental health and wellbeing and trying to eliminate homelessness are critical to the future of a balanced and kind world.

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