Bruce Cotterill: Mental health – the new workplace challenge


They’re the words and phrases of the moment. From the classroom, to the factory floor, to the boardroom, these words have a new-found level of respect.

Once seenas a sign of weakness, they’rewords and phrases that for decades havelargely been pushed aside by business, and indeed society. Until now.

I refer to mental health. Resilience, or the lack of it. Stress. Burnout.

We’re now talking about it. Aided by the work of rugby’s Sir John Kirwan and comedian Mike King, it’s okayto talk about it. In fact, it’s beyond okay.It’s mainstream.

The obvious result of de-stigmatising something is that more people “come out”. Gay rights is an obvious example. But mental health is an avalanche. Having given the people permission to speak about their mental health struggles, it seems there are more people suffering than we anticipated.

Of course, business is expected to do its bit to help such people. And so we should.

Believe it or not, a lot of businesses are still owned or led by the old-style “she’ll be right, harden up” brigade. You know, the sort whostart their sentences with the words “back in my day …”.

I happen to be a member of that generation, too. However, as you become exposed to a particular set of challenges, you learn that you have to change your position from time to time. The new awareness and acceptance of mental health issues creates such a moment.

The tough part is this: a segment of those same business operators are up for this particular challenge. However, many of them are finding it difficult to know where to go for help. As a result, they are having to work it out for themselves.

I recently sat with a business audience in a two-hour presentation by a leading university academic on the subject. Of course there were the usual slides and graphs illustrating the problems. But despite the amount of time allowed for the discussion, there were no solutions offered. Not even hints or ideas about what business can do better.

Just a big long list of details about how many people are suffering and the reasons why so many of us are feeling the way we do.

Last week I spotted an advertisement for a symposium on mental health in the workplace.
The advertised presenters comprised government ministers and officials, academics, psychologists, occupational health people and the like.

Of course, all of these people have a role to play in dealing with the topic. But I expect, just like the academic mentioned earlier, none of them offer solutions for business leaders.

Surely there is a business leader out there somewhere who is doing a good job with this stuff who can share his or her experiences on how to support people.

Despite the usual rhetoric that business is not taking workplace wellness seriously, I see plenty of organisations that are.

The workplace often plays a part in the wellness challenge.

But mental health issues do not exist solely because of the job. Plenty of people bring manyissues from their home life to their work life. In fact, I would go so far as to say that most mental health or stress related issues start elsewhere. The workplace gets blamed because that’s where people often, but not always, fall over.

As we survey our workplace, a proportion of our people will have issues with relationships, money, difficult kids, alcohol, physical health and sometimes drugs. And that’s before they turn up for work. For some, work is the place where they get away from all of that.

Don’t get me wrong. The workplace plays a part. Workplaces are pressure places. We give people budgets, turnaround times, response deadlines and sales targets. We expect our people to attend meetings, give presentations and give service with a smile topeople they don’t like.

On top of that, if we do create opportunities for our people to talk, most managers are inept at listening to and responding to it. I recently sat in on a couple of manager reviews conducted by senior executives.

They were appalling, confused affairs that left the otherwise well-performingmanager wondering about his or her future.

So, what can we, the managers and leaders, do to help our people to manage their stress levels or their mental health challenges?

There are the obvious things. We can encourage diet and exercise. The reality is that we can provide the education but we can’t do much else. Diet and exercise is a personal thing. In short, the person must get themselves organised to do it.

What we can do is understand what people freak out about when it comes to their job, and create an environment where they freak out less often.

If we talk to working people, we learn that the main thing they worry about is losing their job. Many aren’t really sure of what they’re meant to be doing. So they guess. That alone brings uncertainty and therefore stress.

They also worry about the security of their employer. I recently chatted to a young woman who was struggling. One of her major concerns was that she felt that the company was on the brink of collapsing.

She had no idea that the business was extremely profitable.

So here are some simple things we can do:

I always think it’s very important for businesses to have aclear account of what they are trying to achieve. Once you have this, communicate it to your people sothey understand what’s important and where the priorities lie.

Next up, make sure your people have very clear job descriptions which not only clarify what they are responsible for, but also describe how that role contributes to the overall company goal.

Communicate regularly with your team about where you are, and are not, making progress. Get their input into how you can improve. You don’t have to have all the answers yourself, and besides, people love being asked for their opinion. Chances are they’re also closer to the customer so they will have a more informed view.

If you are able to, share financial results with your team. Let them know if you are doing well or if you aren’t. That alone will make a difference. The typical reason managers don’t share this information is that we’re worried about confidentiality. And yet, I’ve been sharing full financial information with the people I’ve worked with for 30years.

I could count the number of times that information has been abused on the fingers of one hand. The payoff is worth it.

Make sureyour people understand that you are there to help them, not hinder them. Sure, we all need to crack the whip every now and then. But that shouldn’t be our main purpose. Walk the factory floor or the open plan office area.

Ask people how they’re getting on. Offer to help them with a difficult problem or a difficult call.

Remember, good leaders are visible, accessible and helpful.

And finally, celebrate the successes. The big ones and the little ones. The new client. The birthday. The person coaching a kids’ netball team or a workmate who’s donated their time to a good cause over the weekend. Look for opportunities to celebrate your people and all that they offer you.

What we’re talking about here is workplace culture. A great culture will have people wanting to go to work and doing their best. A great culture also sets the scene for lessons about living a better life. That in turn makes life just that little bit better for the people who are part of it, and in particular, the people who need it.

So, when you see your people struggling, try something different. And let me know how you get on.

– Bruce Cotterill is a company director and adviser to business leaders. He is the author of the book, The Best Leaders Don’t

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