How managers can support their team’s mental health

9 min read | Sandra Henke | Article | Wellbeing Leadership | Managing a team

Man and woman talking

It’s World Mental Health Day on Monday 10 October, with this year’s theme “Make Mental Health & Well-Being for All a Global Priority”. For many of us, it will be the first World Mental Health Day since 2019 where our lives somewhat resemble those we experienced pre-COVID. However, while the effects of the pandemic have encouraged many of us to be more open about our wellbeing, there is still a way to go.

A poll from Hays on LinkedIn last month showed that only 51 per cent of nearly 27,000 respondents said they could be open about their mental health with their manager at work. If you manage somebody who feels the same way, don’t take it personally. In this blog, I’ll be exploring the steps you can take to identify an employee whose mental health is deteriorating, as well as what you can do to support them and take preventative measures.


Key insights

  • The World Health Organisation advocates for manager training in mental health literacy and awareness. 56 per cent of employers want to improve employee wellbeing, but don’t have the right guidance.
  • There are ways to recognise when a member of your team is struggling, as well as appropriate actions to take that do not overstep boundaries.
  • Managers can use World Mental Health Day to promote wellbeing within their team through talks and activities.
  • Those unable to effect change on a company-wide level should consider the culture in their team, leading by example to promote healthy habits.


Spotting signs that someone is struggling with their mental health

In 2020 my colleague, Nick Deligiannis, wrote about prioritising your people’s wellbeing in a hybrid workplace. Many of us are now used to this model, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easier. In fact, many have argued recently that quiet quitting is a move to preserve one’s own mental wellbeing. Furthermore, much of the guidance still applies if you engage with one another regularly in person.

The signs won’t be the same for everyone, and they won’t always be clear if you don’t see somebody regularly. However, there are some indications that often mean something is wrong. As Nick points out: “The common signs include a change in mood or behaviour, how they interact with others, whether they have become withdrawn from their work, a lack of motivation or focus, or feeling tired or anxious.”

A good leader is approachable. However, the truth is that many people only feel comfortable opening up with those closest to them, if anyone at all. Don’t feel bad if you spot signs of anxiety or depression in one of the team, but they don’t step forward. It’s good that you’re available for them, but never put pressure on anyone to reveal anything. The vital thing is that, once someone is ready to speak to you, you’re there to support them.


Being there for your people

How can you offer support for an employee struggling with their mental health?

Understand what you are capable of and responsible for. Recognising that something is wrong, but being unable to change it, can leave you feeling helpless and guilty yourself. Instead, focus on what you can do. You can be a confidante for them, and as a leader you may be able to make positive changes to their working life. That doesn’t mean being available 24/7, though – make sure that the boundaries they expect of you are reciprocated. If you’re going to promote a healthy work-life balance to prevent burnout, lead by example!

In September, the World Health Organisation (WHO) released its guidelines on mental health at work, providing guidance and actions for employers. The paper encourages training in mental health literacy and awareness but recommends:

 “Training of workers in mental health literacy and awareness is designed to improve knowledge about mental health… and enable workers to support themselves or colleagues appropriately… The training is not designed for workers to become mental health-care providers or to diagnose or treat mental disorders.”

This knowledge is appropriate for many managers as they support their people. Is this training something that you can propose at your organisation? There’s reason to be optimistic. According to UK charity Mind, 56 per cent of employers have confirmed they’d like to improve employee wellbeing but don’t have the right guidance.

Could you take time on World Mental Health Day, or the weeks following, to acknowledge it and promote awareness in a meaningful way? For example, every October the Hays teams across Asia run a ‘Mental Wellness Week’. During this time, we choose a relevant theme for each day of the week (for example “Mental Wellbeing: Head to health” or “Work/life harmony”). We then run talks and activities around these subjects to promote better mental health.


Embedding wellbeing into your values as a leader

As well as reacting, it’s time to take measures to prevent your team’s mental health from deteriorating. This isn’t easy, and involves being honest about the environment you foster.

Of over 17,000 respondents to another Hays poll last month, just 28 per cent agreed that their organisation promoted wellbeing among its employees. In contrast, 41 per cent denied this was the case. In the past I’ve written a blog about the Employee Value Proposition and, namely, the statistics that show workers are willing to walk away if they feel their wellbeing is being compromised at work. Of course, simply retaining your staff should not be your main motivator to look out for their wellbeing. However, the stat serves as a reminder of how deeply this can affect your team.

The WHO policy brief, published in line with their recent guidelines, recommends that managers are trained to: “advocate for action on mental health at work from the top down”. Maybe you’re not in a position to effect change on a company-wide level. In that case, think about the positive culture you create in your team. Make sure that everyone is involved and feel comfortable communicating with not just yourself, but one another too.

As well as approachable, be a compassionate leader. Schedule in regular one-to-one catchups to discuss any problems your team are facing at work. Arrange team meetings to keep everyone connected and encourage casual conversations. If possible, organise social events so that your team can unwind (and let off steam!).

Be inclusive. It can be very difficult to try to tackle such a sensitive issue with one of your team. Instead, think about the structural stigma that may exist in your workplace (or, specifically, team) and think about how you can dismantle this.

Take steps to ensure your people don’t experience burnout. Hays CEO, Alistair Cox, has covered this in the past, and the points are just as valid today. It starts with promoting a healthy attitude toward working hours yourself, and recognising quality of work over quantity. This might well require you to think about the biases you hold toward “hard-working” team members. Encourage them to take regular breaks where possible, as well as holidays to fully relax. Try not to let any workaholic tendencies become widespread within the group.


Next steps: looking out for your team’s mental health as a manager

Think about how you can foster a healthy working environment for your team by promoting communication and inclusivity. Ensure that they know you are approachable, and encourage your organisation to offer training so that you can spot the signs of burnout and poor wellbeing among your people.


About this author

Sandra Henke is the Group Head of People and Culture at Hays. She is a member of the Management Board with responsibility for leading People and Culture strategy and best practice. Her key area of focus is to continue to evolve our culture and people practices, with a specific focus on Diversity and Inclusion, Change Management, Leadership and Talent Development, Succession, Management Skills and Employee Engagement.

She has a long-standing passion for the role that leadership and cultural development play in shaping organisational and human success.

Born and bred in New Zealand, Sandra has worked for Hays for the past 20 years, originally in Australia where her last role was as HR Director for the Asia Pacific region. She moved to London in 2012 to take up a role in the UK&I and was promoted to the Group Management Board in 2017.

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