Are mental health problems at work caused by our unconscious bias?

A lot of business leaders and managers are talking about mental health at work, which is great because it raises awareness of this important topic.

But, not so many people are talking about how ‘they’ are often the main cause of mental illness and distress in the workplace.

Think about it. Who impacts the wellbeing of people at work? The boss!

A stressed-out manager will almost certainly result in a stressed-out team. A boss who can’t recognise an employee who is close to melt-down will almost certainly cause a melt-down.

The big questions is, do leaders and managers consciously behave in a way that negatively impacts on the wellbeing of employees, or do they cause mayhem in complete ignorant bliss?

Unconscious bias plays a big part

The reality is, our attitudes and behaviour towards other people can be influenced as much by our instinctive feelings as by our rational thought process. In fact, our brains and minds are highly developed organs that rely almost entirely on unconscious decisions.

Imagine if you had to consciously process every step of your journey to work each day. Your conscious mind would be faced with a massive task, with hundreds of decisions to make. It would collapse under the strain. Instead, our brain uses the unconscious part to get us to work. Autopilot, some would say.

Take a look at the picture below. Very quickly, think about five words or thoughts that come into your mind while looking at the image below.

head-illusion

Your unconscious bias is a work. Some people will instantly think ‘dislike’ when they see the photo because they hate coffee. Some people will immediately think positive thoughts, associating the image with their favourite brew.

I often use this image when delivering our Unconscious Bias for Leadership course. It always amazes me at some of the things people come up with when they see the image.

We categorise people too

We instinctively categorise people and things around us using rapidly observed information, just like with the coffee image. Facial expressions, movement, skin colour, hand gestures are all observed rapidly by the unconscious mind. We judge people unconsciously because it frees up the brain to get on with other things.

However, the impact of this biological method of conscious versus unconscious processing can get us into all sorts of trouble. Our behaviour, which is largely driven by our unconscious mind, can lead to perceived discrimination. It can lead to unfair treatment of employees, and it can result in mental distress too. It can result in frustrations and negativity amongst our teams, and it can lead to low productivity and low morale. And, all of this is done without the manager even realising it!

What is the answer?

Thankfully, we can avoid unconscious bias.

There are lots of tests and exercises that can help people to uncover their unconscious biases, thereby reducing the impact on their teams.

Understanding people’s feelings is a critical skill in today’s workplace. Leaders and managers need to acquire this skill. How do your employees really feel towards the demands being placed upon them? Are they engaged. or are they just saying they are engaged? Are they motivated, or are they just telling you what they think you want to hear, all the while thinking, what a prat!

Managers let deadlines, they allocate resources and they give out work. But do they do these things in the full knowledge of how they are being perceived by their employees? Or, is their unconscious bias so strong that they press on regardless, without realising their teams are close to braking point?

Project Implicit

Amazing research is being done at Harvard University on the subject of unconscious bias. They have a few fantastic questionnaires that you can try, to find out if you have unconscious biases.

Coffee beans and coffee faces

By the way, did you see the face in the coffee beans? If not, perhaps one side of your brain is working more than the other. Bliss!

Let me know if you have any thoughts or experiences of ‘unconscious bias’.

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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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Does the carrot and stick still work?

I deliver many Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) courses every year, mainly for my global corporate clients. These companies have a strong desire to train their leadership in how to get the best from their teams and employees.

One of the sessions I find most interesting is what I refer to as the ‘carrot and stick session’. I thought it might be nice to reflect on this concept in this week’s post.

To improve performance and productivity and to encourage people to perform at their best, we tend to reward good behaviour and punish bad. If this approach works for donkeys, surely it must work for humans too?

Give them a bonus

It is quite interesting to hear business leaders talking about ‘retention bonuses’ and ‘performance payouts’. Without fail, whenever I start talking about the carrot and stick approach to management, most people on the course prick up their ears and nod encouragingly at the idea of rewarding good workplace behaviour with money.

If a good employee threatens to leave the company, why not give him a bit of extra cash to remain? If a great employee is a team-player and consistency hits her performance targets, why not reward her with a cash payout? Happy days all round? Actually, no. It has been proven that the ‘financial reward for extra work’ approach doesn’t always work in todays modern workplace.

Frederick Winslow Taylor, an American engineer and efficiency guru, once said: “Work consists of simple, not particularly interesting, tasks. The only way to get people to do them is to incentivize them properly and monitor them carefully.” Taylor’s view of the world back in the early 20th century was possibly correct. But those days have long gone.

Money is still, of course, a big factor. We all want to earn enough to see us through, with a little extra for holidays and other luxury items. But does throwing money at employees really produce better output? There have been many social experiments and studies that show money alone is not enough to keep us motivated at work. We need much more than money.

What replaces the carrot?

The carrot, and stick, can be hidden away, providing we have three key elements in our jobs: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Far more powerful than money is autonomy. Human beings need, and strive, for control in all aspects of their lives. The need to control elements of our job is a major factor with most people. If a manager takes away our control, they take away our motivation.

I often ask managers a simple question: “When do you allow your employees to leave at the end of the day?” The response is mostly the same, such as “after they have done their eight hours” or “not before 5pm is the company policy”. Sure, the donkey will move when you beat it, but it will move grudgingly!

Another factor with the modern human psyche is ‘mastery’. It is a human condition that we want to be better and better at something. Our psychological programming is such that we are happier when we feel our skills are advancing. Take sport as an example. Dedicated sports people strive to be better and better. Their whole existence revolves around taking a second off their time, or consistently hitting a backhand to the baseline.

Of course, not every employee will be driven to success in the same way as top sports people. However, allowing a person to achieve mastery in something will go a long way to keeping them motivated and high-performing.

‘Purpose’ is the final ingredient. Doing something that makes a difference can be incredibly rewarding. Doing something that is perceived as having no value whatsoever can be incredibly de-motivating.

Kids teach us all we need to know

I am a firm believer in the idea that we instinctively know what we want. We are born with a sense of personal motivation, but it is sucked out of us by work and by working relationships.

A classic study in behavioural science was carried out by two psychologists, Greene and Lepper. They watched a classroom of children for several days and identified some of the kids who liked to draw during their free time. The researchers divided the kids into three groups. They told the kids in the first group that they would be rewarded with a nice certificate if they drew nice pictures. The second group was not told about the reward but the best pictures received a surprise gift. The third group didn’t receive any reward and were not told about the certificates. The reward structure continued for two weeks.

Two weeks later, the researchers returned to the classroom and observed the children. An amazing discovery was made. The kids who had been rewarded for their drawings now showed less enthusiasm for drawing. However, the kids from groups two and three continued to draw with the same excitement as before.

The conclusion from the above experiment was: “Knowing that you will get a reward can turn enjoyment into work.” Rewarding a person requires them to give up some of their autonomy, with the result that motivation reduces. It becomes a chore.

A nice working environment

A motivated team is one where: people are allowed to do things their own way, with some degree of flexibility and some self-discovery (autonomy); where people are given the opportunity to become the expert at something (mastery); and where team members can clearly see how their efforts will make a difference (purpose). Get these things right, and you will have a motivated and high-performing team.

Of course, a few extra pounds in the bank each month does help too!

I would love to hear your thoughts on what motivates you at work, or how you motivate your team. Perhaps you still use a big stick?

NLP is a wonderful course.