Mental Health Provision Must Include Support For HR Professionals and Team Managers
Updated: Feb 2
Access to advice and guidance from clinically trained mental health professionals is essential for managers and HR teams facing increased demands to support and manage employee wellbeing.
Mental health is complicated and the scope of potential difficulties is immense, contextually bound, and highly personal. Organisations, for all their power, can never alter the fact that there is a constant and complex interplay of personal and professional pressures buffeting their employees. Adverse life events and difficult workplace contexts happen. No matter how good the wellbeing package, no matter how good the culture.
Provisions that encourage healthy physical and psychological living - like end of day mindfulness, free gym classes and burnout awareness workshops - are great, but they are not a guarantee against mental ill-health. They certainly do not make up for organisations with poor workplace culture and practices. And they are rarely helpful in crisis situations or where problems have not been picked up or acknowledged early.
In these more complex situations three things are important:
How people are treated by the family, social and organisational systems around them
Quick access to clinical expertise and support for the individual concerned
Quick access to clinical advice and support for the managers, teams and HR professionals connected to them
Within this triad, support for managers and HR is often forgotten, despite it being critical to these professionals feeling confident in responding appropriately to the employee concerned.
Managers and HR: the first port of call
Providing employees with direct access to support from mental health professionals can certainly help in addressing mental health difficulties when they occur, but this fundamentally relies on employees feeling ready to reach out. In reality, line managers and HR professionals may often be the first people to approach an employee about their mental health and may often be the first people called upon when things have reached crisis point. This is an enormous ask for those without clinical training or support. As well as leaving employees and companies vulnerable to escalating problems, it can have a knock-on effect on the confidence and wellbeing of managers and HR teams themselves. Often they end up feeling exhausted, burnt out and, in some cases, struggling with mental health difficulties of their own.
This has been a particular concern during the pandemic when professionals in these roles have been subject to many of the same stressors that have been affecting their colleagues. Those who are keen to support their teams are increasingly at risk of being overwhelmed themselves as they try to assist others while coming to terms with their own experiences.
Help For Managers and HR Professionals
And certainly, the data supports this. A recent survey of HR professionals showed that, despite recent improvements, the skills and confidence of managers in supporting and assisting with mental health remained an area of concern for respondents.
As psychologists working in organisational settings, we help to manage mental health as it presents within organisations, not just within individuals. So, as well as being available for employees, we offer mental health advice and support to managers, leaders and HR teams to help them identify and respond to colleagues in distress helpfully and appropriately. This has become a key feature of the service we provide, and one that our clients have found pivotal for an effective mental health strategy. By being available for professionals in supporting roles to speak to us confidentially and anonymously, they are able to;
Ask questions about how to support a colleague with a mental health difficulty confidentially, helping inform next steps and building knowledge and skills.
Distinguish between performance issues and issues that might have a mental health dimension, ensuring responses are appropriate, sensitive and preventing problems from escalating.
Contain risk quickly in the case of acute mental health crises (including by referring to an appropriate mental health provider to manage the clinical intervention)
Process emotions that can arise from working with distressed colleagues and teams, helping prevent burnout.
Why is this help important?
Understandably, serious and complex scenarios involving mental health often lead to feelings of helplessness, anxiety and confusion in managers and HR professionals. This in itself is something we need to support but these processes can also have secondary impacts on decision-making, and planning appropriate next steps. When we are flooded with feelings of anxiety it is hard to hold everyone in mind - the individual concerned, the manager, the team, the organisation, the legal HR imperatives etc - and it can become all too easy to make reactive rather than considered, empathetic judgments about what we need to do next.
Furthermore, the impact on managers and HR teams is rarely acknowledged. Despite the fact that when managers and HR teams are underskilled or unsupported in dealing with mental health problems in the workforce, situations can deteriorate and companies can find that they lose team members to sickness, resignations or dismissal. In the worst cases, poorly managed workplace mental health and culture can lead to long term mental health problems, psychiatric admissions and sadly even suicide.
So what does help from a psychologist look like?
Spotting the Signs: People don’t always say, or even recognise, when they are struggling with their mental health, and speaking up at work can feel particularly daunting. For example, 50% of respondents to a recent survey reported feeling unable to be open about their mental health difficulties and busy managers or HR teams may not be able to spot these risks if colleagues are not forthcoming about their difficulties. A psychologist can help managers and HR teams notice warning signs early on and guide them in how to help colleagues feel able to share important information and how to have difficult conversations compassionately and sensitively.
Navigating Next Steps: Consulting with a psychologist provides managers and HR teams with the space and clinical knowledge with which to understand complex situations and identify next steps. As well as helping provide better support to employees, it also helps managers and HR teams keep in mind the boundaries of their responsibilities and prevents them from becoming over-involved in problems that might be more helpfully addressed directly by a mental health clinician.
“One of the things I often say to HR professionals and managers in a consultation is, what’s your role, what’s your goal and what’s your responsibility?”
- Dr Stacey Hemmings
Managing The Emotional Impact: In situations where mental health deteriorates, managers and HR teams sometimes experience worry, panic or a drive to ‘rescue’ struggling colleagues and his can compound the practical problem of what to do next. In cases of mental health crisis, the managers or teams around the employee can be left with complex emotions that can be difficult to deal with. Consultation with psychologists experienced in managing the feelings that arise in ourselves as well as in the person we are helping can help staff in these roles understand and process the emotions they feel in order to move forward in the way that is most helpful.
Getting The Most Out Of Your Resources
Utilising psychological support throughout an organisation in the ways described is often overlooked as a necessity for workplace mental health provisions. But failing to support staff at all levels can be an uneconomical use of mental wellbeing resources at best and, at worst, leave employees feeling more frustrated and managers and HR teams ill-equipped to cope when problems arise.
Amplify psychologists are trained to work with the professional networks around the person who is struggling and are a valuable resource for employees, HR teams and managers. Providing opportunities for consultation and advice helps identify employees who are struggling and ensures they get the right support quickly. This prevents managers, leaders and HR teams on the ‘front line’ of workplace mental health from being psychologically overwhelmed themselves. At a time when many are examining their professional values and re-evaluating their experiences at work, this should be a key consideration for employers investing in mental health resources and organisational culture.
References / Suggested Readings
1. CIPD (2021), Health and Wellbeing at Work: survey report — Link
2. Davies, R (2021), UK workers feel pressure to hide mental health concerns, survey finds. — Link
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.