The manager's role in managing employee mental health

DepressionThere’s been a plethora of articles in the management press and in management-oriented social media recently declaring that mental health is a big issue in firms, and that managers must do certain things to help those afflicted. Many exhort the “five specific things to be done” or other panacea. If only it were that simple.

On the one hand, good mental health is hugely important. It’s opposite, poor mental health, or the dramatic-sounding ‘mental illness’, degrades employees’ ability to perform and hence it is certainly a subject of management interest. On the other hand, it is a very poorly understood subject. First, incidence of poor mental health is not as prevalent as those pedalling solutions suggest. Second, managers are not clinical psychologists, so any suggestion that they might ‘fix’ a person suffering poor mental health is just wrong.

So, what’s a manager to do? How should he or she think about mental health? In this blog, we consider the evidence and make practical, evidence-based suggestions about how mental health should be managed in the firm.

First, some definitions

Mental health describes a syndrome whereby an employee has unhelpful thoughts. Mental health is a spectrum. On the one side of the spectrum, an employee may worry a bit about some things. On the other they may be totally consumed and debilitated by negative thoughts such that they cannot function. We all sit somewhere on the spectrum.

Good mental health describes a state where an employee can cope with their lives. Poor mental health describes a state where an employee has trouble coping. This gives the idea of a threshold of coping – an important concept in mental health management.

Poor mental health is not a state that exists always or even for a prolonged period. It can be momentary, brought on by extreme events or it can be bubbling under the surface to erupt at the slightest provocation.

This all gives the idea of a set point – a normal state on the spectrum for each employee lying somewhere between poor and good mental health. If the employee naturally has a high set point, it will take a lot of strain for them to drop to poor mental health. If the employee naturally has a low set point, they (and those who help them) will have to work hard to ensure they cope.

Mental health and psychological wellbeing are synonymous. In the physical health world, “we are what we eat.” In the mental health and psychological wellbeing world, “we are what we think”. Psychological wellbeing and physiological wellbeing combine in an overall metric of ‘wellbeing’. Wellbeing is a more encompassing and useful metric for managers. Asking an employee ‘how they are feeling today’ and getting a ‘fine’ in response is a simple measure.

There’s significant spill-over between physiological and psychological wellbeing. Someone with a physiological illness likely worries and may suffer severe psychological effects. And someone with poor psychological wellbeing likely also exhibits physiological maladies.

And talking of spill-over, there’s significant interaction between events at home and at work. An employee with a turbulent home life likely brings some of the upset from that to work. As a result, perhaps they can’t concentrate on the job. Conversely, a strong home life allows an employee to cope well with the pressures of a stressful job.

Research suggests that one in eight employees might suffer a mental health episode each year. But that doesn’t mean that one in eight employees are incapacitated for a year – or even for a few days. Given that mental health is a continuum between good and poor, that time of suffering varies from short to long, and that employees cope to greater and lesser extents, the chance of a manager actually having to act urgently on psychological wellbeing is low.

And now some facts

First, there’s no epidemic. Occurence of poor psychological wellbeing – suffering stress or burnout or other class of psychological wellbeing - is no greater or lesser than it has been. It’s just more talked about and more employees are seeking treatment.

Second, the causes of poor psychological wellbeing start with genetics. Some employees are innately more likely to fall victim than others. Those causes then include a string of early-years histories like childhood abuse and social adversity and adolescent problems like violence and social isolation. While current events might degrade an employee’s psychological wellbeing, the root cause likely lies much deeper.

Third, each employee can protect themselves from degrading their psychological wellbeing to a point where they are unable to cope. Avoiding psychological strain that results in stress is one such management tactic. Of course, it’s easy to say that an employee can take such control but it may in practice be more difficult. Inability to take control may itself be one of the problems.

An employee’s position on the wellbeing continuum is neither inevitable nor fixed.

Poor psychological wellbeing is countered (and hence coping encouraged) by encouraging a feeling of purpose, meaning and hope in the person. Generally, those who have a long-term outlook and see a positive future for themselves enjoy better coping. They are able to put present difficulties and strains in a bigger context.

Work is therefore a good therapy. Work – or more importantly, a sense of career – can give that long-term orientation. Work can give purpose, meaning and hope. Work can in itself be the solution for many employees who would otherwise enjoy a low set point. But the work must be right for that employee. Arguably, modern trends of work instability, frequent career change and the requirement to juggle more than one job to make ends meet are problematic for many.

Managers role in helping employees cope

First, managers should choose their employees well. That’s not to say, in a eugenics sense, that all employees should be sifted and those with a propensity for low psychological wellbeing avoided. It’s to recognise that the characteristics needed for each job and the characteristics of each employee are definable and can be matched for optimum performance. A high-stress job like a paramedic will need someone with a high set point – someone with an innate ability to cope. Then management action can be directed to ensure that this state is not jeopardised. Wellbeing and personnel selection are closely linked.

Second, the manager must build employee coping by their direct actions. The HSE gives six ‘management standards’: Demands, Control, Support, Relationships, Role, Change. We define those at length in other blogs and provide a tool for assessing each employee and each situation in each firm. Broadly, there’s much that a manager can do to enrich the job an employee does and the relationship that they have with their manager and hence to aid coping.

But there is a negative force at large. Many coaches advocate that business owners and entrepreneurs work ‘on the firm, not in the firm’. This idea that a manager must distance themselves from their employees means that the all-important interaction and ability to intervene to promote coping is lost. An employee’s job must be managed to give purpose, meaning and hope and that takes close up involvement.

We must however urge caution. Managers are not clinical psychologists. Within the scope available in the work and relationships, they can act to support and build coping. They can’t ‘fix’ an employee and nor should they try. Managers should encourage anyone suffering poor psychological wellbeing to seek help, and they should enable access to the necessary services.

A three-point plan.

Managers should become knowledgeable on wellbeing in general, it’s causes, symptoms and management action that exacerbates it on the one hand, and improves it on the other. It’s important to get beyond the present myths and quackery. General management training (attending a good course such as a DMS or MBA) will typically cover all that’s needed.

Managers should learn to be aware and to practice sensing. Employees will exhibit signs daily that show how well they are coping. A simple, ‘how are you’ is a good start. That, of course, requires managers to be close enough to ask! Sensing allows the manager to identify those employees that might need a little more attention, at least at that point in time. And of course, managers must give time to talk to all their employees.

Managers need to develop a number of appropriate interventions. Long term practices like allowing sufficient rest time from work and fostering good employee and management relationships increase coping for all. But direct intervention will also be needed. Pulling someone off a particular job may reduce their short-term strain while improving relationships and competencies by changing team members might be just the right action to continue team performance without singling out the sufferer. To enable intervention, of course, managers must be prepared to act.

If you need further direct help in how to manage mental health in your employees, do get in touch. And there’s a complete chapter on the management of wellbeing in our book, Because Your People Matter. Chapter 9 on wellbeing can be read in its entirity via the Amazon "Look Inside" feature.

Further Reading

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