Updated: Nov 22, 2021
Let’s say you’ve had a recent experience of a staff member’s performance having slipped..... You’re not aware of any problems they’ve been having outside of work, but you recognise that it’s been a difficult year for everyone and, with teams working from home, it’s not easy to know when something might be impacting a person’s ability to maintain the same standards. You’ve tried to explore this a bit..... maybe even with the staff member themselves........but they’ve told you that they’re fine and that nothing is wrong. Their work is still causing issues, but just as you plan to sit down and address this with them, they take extended sick leave with a GP’s diagnosis of stress.
Sometimes, even when we feel like we’ve taken the right approach to addressing the combination of mental health and performance problems, employees can struggle to tell us what’s wrong and what they need....and we can be left feeling unclear about what went wrong.
As a manager, your approach to situations like this is important.......and patience, compassion and understanding will go a long way. As part of our work in organisations, Amplify psychologists often help managers think about how to talk to a staff member who’s struggling, and how to collaboratively make a plan for moving forward. But if the staff member doesn’t feel safe to share what’s going on for them in the first place, this process won’t get off the ground. And a lot of that has to do with the wider culture in the team or organisation.
Creating a Culture of Disclosure Through Modelling
We all know that in order to foster an environment where it feels safe to talk about difficulties, people need to feel that they will be accepted and supported. By far, the best way that an organisation can communicate this is through leaders and managers modelling the behaviour themselves.
Has your team ever heard you talk about your own well being or mental health?
Do you or the senior leaders demonstrate taking regular annual leave, acknowledging emotional well-being or utilising support?
If not, taking some steps towards changing this is likely to help your team feel more able to come to you before problems escalate. This doesn’t mean that you need to share all your personal problems with your team. If you’ve ever used the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or psychological support in the past, you could simply remind your team that it’s available and let them know that these resources really helped you at a time when you felt you needed to talk things through. Hearing managers and senior leads regularly (and with genuine conviction) signpost to resources that support well-being is one step towards normalising both distress and asking for help.
Signposting alone is unlikely to be enough.....and you will need to show your team that you yourself can handle talking about well-being. You could practice discussing the emotional state of the team a bit more often, perhaps just by acknowledging times of organisational stress and asking your team something like, ‘has anyone else been finding it harder to switch off from work lately?’. You should then include yourself in a plan for how to address this, perhaps by reducing the number of meetings booked into your schedule, scheduling 15 minutes of team mindfulness at the end of the work day or making sure you have regular annual leave booked in. Or, why not try all three?
If talking about emotional health is not something you’re used to doing, it can feel difficult at first. Taking a few minutes to think about what you and your team might be feeling at the moment, and then practising a conversation with a trusted friend, family member or colleague can be a great way to get comfortable with asking questions and sharing information. We learn largely through doing, so practising actually having a conversation, rather than just thinking about how one might go, is going to be much more helpful at building your skills here.
Confidentiality is Respected
Employees struggling with mental health difficulties are likely to be aware of when their performance at work begins to slip. But talking to a manager about a mental health difficulty can be extremely daunting and many people will worry about how the information they disclose will be shared and used. Information shared too widely, or without consent, can leave an employee feeling personally and professionally vulnerable or exposed, creating worry about career prospects and how they will be viewed or treated by colleagues.
If your team members don’t feel confident that their information will be treated with care and respect, they will not disclose difficulties they might be having and this may increase the risk that mental health and/or performance related problems will escalate. It is, of course, important that you are able to call on relevant support networks to help you with a team member who is struggling, but this must be done transparently, and in accordance with protocols around respectful information sharing. Employees should never be surprised by where information about them has ended up.
How do you make it clear to your team that they can talk to you about problems they might be having in confidence?
Who would you share information with and why? Do your team know this and trust that the appropriate protocols will be followed?
If you are planning to talk to a team member about issues to do with mental health or personal difficulties, it is a good idea to set out, early in the conversation, what your protocols and responsibilities are around information sharing. You could let the team member know that you would like to have an informal chat with them about how they have been managing recently and that any personal details they tell you will remain between you, unless you decide together that it would be helpful to consult with someone else. Let them know that you will log the meeting but be willing to share with them any notes that you record and tell them where these notes will be stored and who will have access to them.
Know Your Limits
It is important to recognise the scope of your role and when to bring in a mental health professional. You might feel that your role as a manager is to support your team in your professional work tasks and that part of that involves recognising that workers are humans whose complex emotions and experiences cannot always be left at the door when they start work. Compassionately acknowledging this with your team is likely to make you a better manager and one that people will feel comfortable approaching, but trying to hold or resolve mental health problems or difficult emotional dynamics alone may not be helpful for you or the rest of your team.
If a team member has shared mental health difficulties they are having, or perhaps your whole team have been having a tough time and you feel unsure about what steps to take, draw on the resources available to support them and you. This could include;
For individual team members - their own GP: GP’s are a good first link to mental health support and will know which relevant services are available to the person locally. If you’re concerned about someone who has disclosed that they are struggling with their mental health, check in with them as to whether their GP is aware and if not, recommend that they book an appointment to get advice from a trained professional, alongside your plan for support at work.
In-house psychology services or EAP: If your organisation has a dedicated mental health service, you could sign post a team member to it or, with their consent, make the referral yourself. Alternatively, or additionally, you could seek advice for yourself on what next steps to take with either an individual or a team in distress, and how to manage your own feelings about the situation.
Be Okay With Uncertainty
Creating a culture of acceptance will reduce anxiety in your team about asking for help and is your best chance at being able to offer support quickly and contain task related problems. However, it does not guarantee that team members will be open with their struggles. Although it might feel frustrating or worrying when a team member appears to be struggling and is reluctant to share what’s going on for them, there are many reasons why someone might feel unable or unwilling to discuss what they are going through, and part of an accepting culture is respecting people’s right to share only what they feel comfortable with.
Consistently communicating a compassionate approach to your team is the best approach you can take and by following the points discussed you will be at least half way there. Remember:
Model talking about mental health and well-being to create a culture of acceptance.
Consider whether the problem you’re witnessing feels outside of your comfort zone to manage. Be aware of the external resources you and your team can draw on, and use them!
Demonstrate that you follow protocols around information sharing properly to allow people to feel safe talking to you. Always be transparent about what you are doing.
Please do get in touch, if you think the Amplify Psychologists can help!
Reduce the stress of caring about how you manage mental health
After a 3-months long open dialogue with over 20 HR directors and senior managers, Amplify recently launched the HR and Manager Consultation programme, a pioneering service that specifically helps HR teams and managers reduce the stress of caring about how they manage mental health at work.