For many years it was seen as ‘fair game’ to joke about mental health. I’ve been as guilty as everyone else, perhaps more so. I loved telling the story of walking past the old Grangegorman Mental Hospital (now the campus for Dublin Institute of Technology) and seeing the following graffiti scribbled on the external wall: “May contain nuts.” But dealing with mental health issues at work in no longer a joke. The pain of suffering is all too real – and few managers know how to address this or understand their role in this space. The old belief = leave it alone. This was something outside of your control. But, it turns out that there’s quite a few things that you can do to support mental wellbeing….
Problem-Prevention: At an organizational level, employers need to address three things. The first is prevention i.e. promoting mental (and physical) wellbeing for staff. For example, promoting work/life balance. You might remember that really old idea that people should work sensible hours and not always contribute over and above their contracted time? Perhaps you are too young to recall this and you are part of the presenteeism generation? Mental health is also promoted through positive working relationships. Is the senior team acting as a role model in terms of positive relationships? And, of course, you need to have robust learning and development systems, systematic training to upskill people (sense of progress), external coaching and so on. Under this heading, do employees feel that they have a voice, a say in how they do their job and how the organization is run? Complete an ‘internal audit’ of people management practices and take a hard look at what you do (in my naïveté, I’m working on the assumption that you actually care about this stuff).
Problem-Solving: The second part of this equation is tackling the work-related causes of mental health problems. Staff surveys and exit interviews are examples of structured mechanisms to take a temperature check. In addition to the formal stuff, all local managers need to monitor the wellbeing of staff, checking in with them regularly, what’s sometimes referred to in the USA as “a culture of 1 to 1”. Many years ago a funny incident took place in Intel in Leixlip where an employee asked a difficult question in a public forum. The senior leader (a woman) promised him a “1 on 1 later”. He didn’t know if he was getting fired or getting a bonus (his mates dined out on this for about a year afterwards). Some employers are now training their managers to spot and deal with mental health issues, but it’s a minority practice. Line managers can be uncomfortable with broader ‘life conversations’, anything that stretches beyond “How’s quality today?” or “What’s the sales pipeline?” They need to understand that empathy is a key part of their role (and understand the subtle but critically important differences between empathy, sympathy and apathy). Try pronouncing those words at speed following 3 pints of Heineken! Managers need to engage holistically with people and spot aberrant behaviour when things are going off the rails. In short they need to be able to open up a conversation and to live with the answer, even if this isn’t always a happy-clappy employee (mild depression is part of life for many people). To operate successfully in this space, managers need to be clear on groundrules and boundaries – without always having to ‘hang back’ 12 miles from the edge of the cliff for fear of causing offense.
Clear Pathways: The final part of this equation is around having clear policies and practices in place to support people who experience a mental health problem. This might be workplace stress, a period of emotional upheaval, or living with a mental health problem that may flares up intermittently. Overall, this is a layered strategy. You shouldn’t promote mental wellbeing if you’re not going to support people who actually have a problem. It undermines the sense of genuineness and is tokenistic. You can’t just put it in the newsletter and then forget about it for another quarter.
It’s a long time ago now, but as a child I often walked past Grangegorman Mental Hospital with my mother. One day I asked her about the huge grey walls that surrounded the hospital and what were they for. She said: “That’s to keep all the mad people on the outside from getting in.” It took me years to fully understand what she meant.
Ps Lighter Note: Manure… An interesting fact (courtesy of Larry McGivern)
In the 16th and 17th centuries, everything had to be transported by ship. As this pre-dated the invention of commercial fertilizers, large shipments of manure were quite common.
It was shipped dry, because in dry form it weighed a lot less. But once water (at sea) hit it, not only did it become heavier, but the process of fermentation began again, producing a by-product of methane gas.
As the stuff was stored below decks in bundles you can see what could (and did) happen. Methane began to build up below decks and the first time someone went below at night with a lantern, BOOM! Several ships were destroyed in this manner before it was determined exactly what was happening.
After that, the bundles of manure were always stamped with the instruction ‘Stow High In Transit ‘ on them, which meant for the sailors to stow it high enough off the lower decks so that any water that came into the hold wouldn’t touch this volatile cargo and start the production of methane. Thus evolved the term ‘S.H.I.T’ (Stow High In Transit) which has come down through the centuries and is in use today.
You probably didn’t know the true history of this word. Neither did I. I always thought it was a golf term!
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