How to build mental health resilience in the workplace

Public awareness of mental health and wellbeing has never been greater. On television, in newspapers and online, there are daily references to mental health and its impact on people, employers and on society.

This is great news, because talking about mental health is an important step towards really helping people. The more we talk about the subject, the less taboo it will become. However, we still have an awful long way to go.

Business leaders are taking this seriously too. Almost weekly, I get a call from a company asking what they need to do to put in place a mental health and wellbeing strategy. This is really good news, because it shows that the message is getting through to employers.

In this post, I don’t want to reel off statistics and data, suffice to say mental ill-health is now at the top of the list when it comes to time lost at work. Instead, I would like to spend a little time discussing the main things a company should do to help their employees.

I believe there is a six-stage approach to building mental health resilience in the workplace. Put simply, the six stages are:

  • Identify the risk: the baseline
  • Pledge support: the commitment
  • Develop a plan: the journey
  • Champion the cause: the support
  • Coach leadership: the change
  • Providing support: the counsellor

Identifying the risk: the baseline

The first thing that employers need to do is to identify whether or not they have a problem. A company may have perfectly happy employees, who are all fulfilled at work and who thrive on their daily challenges.

At the other end of the spectrum, a company may have a very negative culture, with high absenteeism, and with some of their employees on the brink of collapse.

The first step is to identify the risk. Is your company at one end of the spectrum or somewhere in the middle? You need to know where you are so that you can plan your journey for improvement.

There are many ways to identify the risk. The simple approach is to ask employees to complete a mental health and wellbeing questionnaire. There are some very good off-the-shelf questionnaires that will help categorise where the risk lies. However, I don’t think questionnaires on their own are effective. I much prefer a combination approach; completing questionnaires and one-to-one sampling of the workforce. A properly trained interviewer (usually a counsellor or psychotherapist) can glean a huge amount of information during a ten-minute one-to-one session with an employee.

The output from the questionnaire and from the sampling will provide an accurate picture of the level of risk within the company. More importantly, it will show which areas are weak.

Pledge support: the commitment

Next comes the pledge. Let’s hear it from the boss. It is incredibly important for top management to address mental health in a proactive manner. They need to pledge support and they need to commit to a policy. I find a one-page policy on wellbeing works nicely. It is something that can be published across the company for all employees to see. The pledge needs to be signed by the top dog.

A policy and pledge should clearly show that mental wellbeing is high on the company’s agenda. It should show commitment from the boss, and it should include something about early intervention and securing appropriate funds to finance wellbeing initiatives. The policy should challenge the stigma of mental ill-health by committing to raising awareness across the company.

Develop a plan: the journey

The third stage is to plan. Armed with information from the baseline survey, the journey for improvement needs to be planned and documented. The journey starts here.

It is a great idea to set up a consultation group to help develop the plan. The consultation group should consist of volunteers from across the company and should include representatives from senior management, from line supervision, representatives from each department and from trade unions too.

I have a few corporate clients where I chair their consultation group. We meet every quarter to discuss progress against the plan. It is a wonderfully positive meeting, full of enthusiasm and support. It always amazes me how innovative people can be. A few months ago, I sat and listened to a group discussing how to promote life-work balance. Suddenly, someone exclaimed: “We could use the WELL concept.” All eyes turned to the lady as she described her idea. She suggested putting together a company-wide initiative, using a themed approach, around the concept of Work, Engage, Learn, Live. Amazingly simple, but they have now embraced the WELL concept and everywhere you go across the company’s sites you can see posters that explain how to work, engage, learn and live.

Champion the cause: the support

The phrase ‘mental health first aid’ is doing the rounds at the moment. I think this is a wonderful thing. If an employee cuts their finger while at work, they would pop along to the first-aid station to get a plaster and a bit of TLC from the local first-aider. However, if an employee is close to emotional breaking point, who do they turn to?

Training mental health first aiders is an essential stage in building workplace resilience. Properly trained people, who can offer support to employees, can be invaluable.

Every company should have at least one Mental Health Champion. I advise the 1:50 ratio; there should be one properly trained champion for every 50 employees. Mental health and wellbeing champions are there to advise management and to offer emotional support to employees when needed.

I conduct a lot of training courses but my favourite course is the Mental Health Champion course. Delegates on the three-day course are enthusiastic and motivated, and it is a complete joy to be helping them to discover the huge rewards from being a mental health champion.

Most people don’t know what to do if a colleague is on the brink of emotional crisis. These courses teach how to recognise when a person is in need of support and how best to support them. Active listening is a key skill when dealing with emotional wellbeing and these courses teach this important skill that can be used in and out of work.

Coach leadership: the change

Who ‘controls’ the workplace? Is it the man or woman at the top of the tree?

Undoubtedly, the person who controls the company is the Managing Director or the Chief Operating Officer, but do they really influence attitudes and behaviours at the coal-face?

A few weeks ago, I was involved in carrying out a baseline mental health survey of a large international manufacturing company. I asked one of the shop floor workers, “when did she last talk with the COO?” To my surprise, she told me she had no idea who that person was, let alone having ever met them. I interviewed the COO a few days later and asked him why the majority of people in his company had no idea who he was. His reply was simple. He said: “I crunch numbers, I secure funding, and I make sure we have enough money in the bank to pay salaries at the end of each month. I employ supervisors to run the business and to manage people, so nobody needs to know me.” Interesting point, I said.

Now, whether you agree or disagree with that COO’s idea of running a business is clearly open to debate. But, he did make an interesting point. How can he possibly know 6,800 people? Supervisors and line managers know more about their teams than anyone else in the company. It is their job to look after the wellbeing of their teams. Ironically, these are the very people who can cause most damage to a person’s mental wellbeing. Poor management and poor leadership skills can wreak havoc with a person’s mental state of mind.

How many supervisors come up through the ranks, from shop floor to management positions? Most of them. But how many of them have been trained in the people-skills that are so important in today’s world? Not many.

I worked with a company last year where I got to know most of the supervisors quite well. One guy had been an electrician in the company for 20 years. He knew more about the electrical systems in that firm that anyone else. He was a very skilled tradesman. Then he was promoted to supervisor! Disaster.

That poor electrician quickly went from a position of expert to a position of incompetence. His management skills, or lack of, had a huge effect on his team. His staff were stressed out, absenteeism in his department was the highest across the company and the team’s reputation went spiralling out of control. Why? Because senior management had promoted someone on the merit of his skill and not on his management abilities. He was completely oblivious to the damage that he was causing. He became depressed and was prescribed medication from his GP.

All levels of supervision and management need to be trained in ‘managing people’. Getting the best from your staff, in a safe and healthy way, is a skill that cannot be achieved without proper training and coaching. That is why this stage in the wellbeing journey is so important.

Providing support: the counsellor

Sometimes, all the proactive stuff just isn’t enough. Sure, it is always better to fix the cage before the tiger escapes, but sometimes the lock on the cage door is just too rusty and it is a matter of time before escape is inevitable. When the tiger gets out, we need to have contingencies to find it and to return it safely to its enclosure (with a new lock on the door). Okay, enough of the tiger analogy. The important thing here is for employers to recognise that sometimes being reactive is okay.

Employees should be provided with the opportunity to get help when they need it. Every employer should set up an employee support system, so that employees can discuss their personal issues with a trained counsellor or psychotherapist. This is an absolutely essential aspect of building resilience in the workplace.

And so, that is it. The six-stage approach to building mental health resilience in the workplace. It is important for employers to start their journey by identifying the level of risk. They need to pledge support and they need to set out a detailed plan for improvement. Training mental health champions and first aiders is vitally important, and so too is the need for leadership training and coaching. Finally, access to a counselling service for staff needs to be in place. If a company were to put all of these things in place, they will be well on the way to keeping their workforce safe and healthy.

If anyone has experience of building mental health and wellbeing resilience in the workplace, I would love to hear from you. Let me know what worked, what didn’t work, and the challenges along the way.

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If you change nothing, nothing will change!

I thought it might be nice to reflect on the success I have just had with one of my clients. Obviously, I can’t use her real name and I can’t share her details, so for now I will call her Julie.

I had a wonderful Skype meeting with her last week. She was excited and talked non-stop for the first ten minutes. You see, Julie had just received her first royalty payment for a book she has written. I won’t share with you the amount she received, suffice to say it was the equivalent of six months income for the average UK and US employee!

What makes this story more poignant is that Julie almost ended her own life two years ago. She experienced a really bad run of luck and it all got too much for her. Her doctor prescribed antidepressants and he recommended she see a counsellor. That’s where I came into her story.

In need of a life coach

Actually, Julie didn’t need a counsellor, she needed a life coach. Sure, her mental health wasn’t all it could have been and there were some issues that were troubling her, but the root of Julie’s problems was centered around her feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem and lack of confidence in her abilities. Julie wanted to change her life, she wanted to get out of the rut and drudgery of her daily grind, but she didn’t know how. No amount of antidepressants or other medications would have helped Julie to make changes in her life.

Julie was a very creative person. She loved to paint, draw, take photographs and she really loved to write fiction. However, her lack of self-confidence was always the stumbling block. When I first met Julie she showed me a wonderful portfolio of pencil drawings she had done. But each time she pulled out a drawing for me to look at she would say stuff like “this one isn’t very good” or “I don’t like the sky in this one”. After looking at ten pictures I stopped her and asked if she could find one she really liked. She couldn’t bring herself to say any of her work was ‘good’.

I won’t go into detail about why Julie lacked self-confidence. There was a whole load of reasons. Sometimes, the wrong thing to do is to look back for reasons. Sometimes it is better to look to the future and forget the past. Some people need psychoanalysis before they can move on to greater things in their lives, but some people just need to look at the ‘here and now’. It is always a dilemma that I have when working with new clients; do I go for the treatment that is based on analysis or do I go for life coaching techniques. With Julie, I decided life coaching was the answer.

What is life coaching?

Let me pause for a second to explain a little more about life coaching.

Life coaching is a means of helping people, usually a person, tap into their true potential and to realise their aspirations and dreams. I like to use the analogy with tennis. Suppose you wanted to take up tennis as a new sport. You could read a book on the subject, you could watch numerous YouTube videos, and you could talk to other players about the sport. However, none of those things will get you playing tennis. So, you decide to buy a racket, some balls, and find a wall to practice against. You might pick up the basics through self-teaching, but you will almost certainly pick up bad habits too. You might find progress is very slow and you may become demoralised and give up.

You might find a tennis coach. He will teach you the basics, then, as you progress, he will teach you more advanced techniques. Perhaps you will get into competitions and your coach will support you through your matches, helping you to analyse your opponents strengths and weaknesses. Your coach will set you goals and objectives and he will work with you to help achieve those. He will pick you up and dust you off when you fall down and he will encourage you. He will almost certainly push your boundaries, but in a safe and encouraging way. Together you will win. But the one thing he will not do is to play your matches for you. YOU will do that yourself. YOU will learn, YOU will play, YOU will win.

Life coaches have the ability to help you shed light on difficult situations. They will do many things, such as setting regular goals and targets, looking at the big picture so that you can look at the detail, have regular check-ins, motivate, identify your strengths and weaknesses, and, most importantly, help you to work smart rather than work hard.

I read an interesting piece about life coaching in a recent edition of the Public Management magazine. The author reflected on a recent study that showed training alone increases productivity in companies by about 22% while training combined with coaching increases productivity by over 80%.

Life coaching is incredibly popular now. Why? Well, it is simple really. More and more people are getting tired of what they ‘should’ do and are ready to do something special and meaningful with their lives. The problem is, most people can’t seem to see a way to reorient their life. A life coach has a vast toolkit that can be used to help reset and move forward.

Back to Julie

Julie wanted to change but her self-doubt held her back. For years she didn’t change. The desire was there but she couldn’t see a way to make a breakthrough. Her self-esteem was rock bottom, her mental wellbeing was in need of help, and her belief that she was a valuable person was almost non-existent. There was one positive thing about Julie that I recognised immediately – she wanted to change. In fact, her desire to change was as strong as I have seen in anyone before.

I started work with visualization techniques. Between us, Julie and I pictured success. Julie didn’t want to be a millionaire, she didn’t want fancy cars or exotic holidays, she just wanted a life that was fulfilling. So, we pictured it together. Through a combination of relaxation techniques and self-hypnosis, Julie was able to start ‘seeing’ her new life. A good start.

After you see what the future might look like, the next stage is to plan how to get there. It really is like a journey. If you want to arrive at your destination, you need to travel. So, together Julie and I planned her journey. We looked at her strengths and weaknesses. We looked at the things she could do now, and we looked at subjects she was passionate about. We came up with a plan. Julie would write a book. She had been scribbling away for years but she never thought her idea would fly. Well, it was time to give it wings.

Life coaches need to check-in regularly, so that was exactly what I did with Julie. I checked on her progress, I motivated, I listened to her when she was down and struggling and I picked her up again. Her strength grew each week. We developed ways to help her build self-confidence and we laughed when my ideas went horribly wrong (yes, life coaches get it wrong sometimes!).

Finally, it was judgement day. Julie had sent her work to a literary agent. To her surprise and delight, the agent emailed and asked to meet for a discussion. I spent two hours with Julie before her meeting with the agent. We had coffee and we walked in a local park. I needed to build her confidence to an all-time high so that she would go into her meeting and wow that agent. And she did.

Beaming from cheek to cheek, Julie emerged from her meeting triumphant. Her agent agreed to get a deal for her. And the rest, as they say, is history. Julie is writing her second book.

The one thing I want you to take away from Julie’s story is this. I, as the life coach, didn’t write her book – Julie wrote it. Julie came up with the ideas for the book, Julie constructed all the characters, Julie spent days, weeks and months writing, and Julie closed the deal with the agent – not me. All I did was to take a person who needed direction and work with her to help her find the answer. Life coaching is wonderful.

I really hope you enhoyed my piece on life coaching.

I have a new podcast series on life coaching coming out very soon. Keep in touch.

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