How leaders can support mentally healthy workplaces

Mental Health Month is coming up in Australia. Throughout the country there are numerous initiatives in October to raise awareness on social, psychological, and emotional wellbeing. At Recruit Global Staffing the wellbeing of our people is one of our top priorities, because our (temp) employees are our biggest asset. For them to perform as best as they can and feel happy at their job, it’s vital that their leaders support mental health at their workplaces. One of our leaders, Peter Acheson CEO of the Chandler Macleod Group (consisting of our Asia Pacific brands Chandler Macleod, Peoplebank group, AHS Hospitality, Vivir, OCG Consulting and Aurion) sat down with two of his Senior Chandler Macleod People Insights team members, to find out just how leaders can ensure that their organization is mentally healthy.
Acheson: “As leaders we are so caught up in the mechanics of keeping workplaces running effectively and profitably that we can forget the ultimate importance of focussing much of our efforts on keeping our employees safe, healthy and empowered. I was very interested to read that only 5 in 10 employees (56%) believe their most senior leader values mental health (Beyond Blue &, 2014) and that between 13%-17% of depression cases can be attributed to career strain.
Recently I spoke with Anna McNaughton, our General Manager of Career and Change in CMPI, and Narelle Dickinson, our Senior Consultant Psychologist.
Here is what we talked about…

What do you consider to be the most important mental health habits for the workplace?

Anna: "The little things that an organisation can do can help make a big difference to its workforce. People need clarity around their role and expectations – they need to know they are doing their roles and get positive and constructive feedback to develop. They need good communication often from their managers. They need to feel like they can trust their manager."
Narelle: Ensure that staff know that there are no expectations for them to be working long hours by establishing a workplace culture that promotes people taking an actual break for lunch. Preferably sitting down away from their desk or even outside. That same culture will help to encourage them to take regular breaks, engage with their teams and move enough to maintain physical health.
Also providing a physical environment that helps staff feel valued and appreciated. Access to clean, professional bathroom facilities, and a comfortable pleasant spot to go to have their lunch, maybe even provide access to the sorts of things that promote healthy eating – fresh cold water, a fruit basket, tea, coffee and milk in the fridge – it is amazing how many workplaces refuse to provide milk for their staff coffees – such a tiny outlay, but it goes such a long way to make the individual worker feel that their employer cares about them, and helps them feel like they want to come to work.

Why is it important for leaders to demonstrate these habits?

Anna: Leaders need to be authentic with their teams and be modelling proactive positive behaviours. Modelling healthy behaviours is such a critical role for a leader. People need to know they can trust their manager, as that will lead to more engaged and happier staff and likely more discretionary effort.
Narelle: Totally agree, for example, if a manager works 18 hours days and send emails to their staff with a 2am time-stamp, they are communicating the message that this is what counts as ‘working hard’. If, however, leaders take the time to model reasonable working hours, head out to the gym either at lunch or after work, step away from their desk to talk to staff instead of sending an email – then they are sending a clear message of the culture of the workplace. 
Whatever message the leader sends will trickle down pretty quickly, so it is so important to be sending the right one. Leaders need to stay healthy too and it is vitally important for their own families that they don’t come home stressed, exhausted and irritable because that’s not the best version of themselves.

What can leaders/managers do if they are concerned about their team?

Anna: Simple, just be human! Check in with them – but of course do it sensitively and discreetly. We often don’t know what is happening in another person’s life and the “face” they bring to work might not reflect what they are dealing with at home. Ask someone if they are ok and let them know that you are there. Remind them of the supports available
Narelle: Take staff aside and respectively check in. The script is easy… “Hey, you don’t seem yourself at the moment. Is there anything that you need right now?” might be enough to open the door. Obviously, not every person will accept your invitation to talk, but it can make a huge difference just to know that someone cares enough to notice. Importantly, that might be the prompt for someone to realise that they aren’t ok – they may not accept help from you, but they might seek it from someone else. I think that’s an important point – you might never know that you made a difference to someone… but you will certainly find out in the worst possible way if someone isn’t ok and no one does anything for them.

Are there any ‘red flags’ leaders should be watching out for?

Anna: For sure. If you notice your staff are taking more time off than normal, it might be more about their mental health than their physical wellbeing. If they seem a bit more “flat” or irritable and snappy. If you notice that seem to have “lost their mojo”, that they just don’t have the same “get up and go” and confidence at work that you expect from them, or you realise that they are doubting and “second guessing” themselves and their work. All of these are signs that something might be not quite right for them.
Narelle: Look, really it would be so much better to check in and find out that everything IS ok, than not responding at all, so we don’t want to wait until someone is sobbing in the corner before we respond. I was speaking to a colleague the other day about this, and he told me that personal matters shouldn’t impact how we are at work – it should “stay at the door”, but I couldn’t disagree more. It is ridiculous to think that we can be separate creatures at home and at work, and we need to realise that our workers are people first.
Anna: it’s also important to know your staff so you know what is uncommon for them. It’s easy to see your more extraverted staff go quiet but more reserved staff are likely to fall under the radar unless you really take the time to check in.
Make sure you build relationships with new and existing staff is key. Utilising personality Assessments such as Helix are invaluable in this respect as they give managers and leaders insights into their team personality and highlight areas where they might need to be more in tune. This can reallu build trust at all times but in particular when someone may be under pressure

Do you have any tips for what not to do or how to not respond to team members who are under stress?

Narelle: Well don’t send them to HR or the organisation’s EAP as your first step – that might come later, but first of all just let them see your human face and let them know you care.
The best piece of advice I ever heard from a psychologist is this… No-one will ever attempt suicide because you ask if they are feeling suicidal – you are not going to “put the thought into their head” if it isn’t already there. But they might see an alternative if you do check in on them. The single best thing we can do for someone who is distressed is notice and let them know we noticed.
Anna: Don’t be afraid to ask if they are ok. Don’t ask them in a public area of the office – allow them respect and discretion when you check in – how horrible if they suddenly burst into tears standing next to the photocopier when they were trying super hard to “hold it together”. Give them some privacy and speak gently and kindly. Using walk-talk meetings as an everyday occurrence can really help, so that if you say to someone let’s go get some fresh air, then it’s an activity that people are used to.
Narelle: And importantly, don’t make them feel like they have failed a test if when you ask “RUOK?” they tell you that they really aren’t. It takes a lot of courage for some people to admit that they are not ok, particularly with their boss. So, tell them how relieved you are that they have been honest with you and let them know you appreciate the fact they have trusted you. Then find out what you can do to help.
A big thank you to both Anna and Narelle for taking some time out to answer my questions. I think the key is that we, as leaders, should not be seeing mental health as a once a year event on R U OK day, although this is a fantastic initiative which serves as a yearly reminder to get back on track. Create a culture of wellness, resilience and self-care within your organisation by starting with your own behaviours. These strategies aren’t just good for the individual’s mental health, in the long run they are also better for the organisation – because happy healthy people are more productive, have lower absentee rates, and are more likely to stay with the organisation for longer.
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