Empowering Conversations About Mental Health with Michelle Gant

To accompany our guest blog by Michelle Gant, Director of The Engaging People Company, who led our second masterclass in the #EasternLeaders2021 series, we’ve summarised the key topics and discussions from the session below:

The importance of having conversations about mental health

As leaders, we need to be modelling prioritising well-being in ourselves, in order to make it OK for others. We have all gone through something quite profound, impactful and difficult, and the conversations we are having about mental health are more open now than they were before the pandemic.

As leaders in the workplace, it’s important to create a workplace culture that is accepting, open and supportive of each individual’s mental health. It’s important to let people know that it is OK to talk about things confidentially and with trust, and to understand that we are leaders, not heroes, and that it’s important to put ourselves first when it comes to our own mental health.

Some of the challenges faced around mental health in the workplace include people worrying that they might be judged for having a perceived ‘weakness’, or are worried their career may be affected moving forward if a mental health issue is disclosed, or that their disclosure might ‘come back on them’.

There is still a stigma attached to mental health issues, and it’s even more important now that as leaders we drive a positive mental health culture and embed this throughout our organisations, without there being judgement or fear attached, and that we don’t wait to have these types of conversations in the workplace and that regular conversations are kept going, so that there is not a feeling of waiting until a crisis point is hit before offering support to people. This is how trust and confidence is nurtured within an organisation, and it’s a big thing to talk about, not just as an employee buy also as a leader. We tend to feel it will be a difficult conversation, but is it, really?

A difficult conversation?

Many leaders worry about what they are going to say to someone who needs mental health support, but the key is to focus on what your role is as a leader, which is to empower people; to listen, support, offer solutions and options. If we see someone struggling, often we want to help them, but when we take away someone’s ability to make their own choices, this can lead us into the parent/child or victim/rescuer/persecutor scenario, whereby we may end up disempowering them, which can be counterproductive and damaging.

When we empower people we can make a real difference to them, and we can do this by offering tools and mechanisms which can empower people to help themselves and feel supported, without taking control of the issues on their behalf, or taking away their power to help themselves.

Understanding the help that’s out there as a leader

It’s important to understand and be aware of the tools available that you can offer your employees at any given time. If you are pre-armed with this information it makes it easier for people to trust that there are options in place for them to choose from. The checklist below can help you to provide a good level of support:

Space – creating a safe space for people to talk is very important. This could be over Teams or Zoom, at the office, going for a walk outside somewhere or a number of separate spaces where people can feel comfortable to talk openly.

Time – making time for people to feel comfortable enough to open up and talk can make a real difference. Giving time for people to really open up if they feel like they want to talk in their own time is very important.

Confidentiality (with limitations) – It’s very important to ensure confidentiality when sharing or having things shared with you; however if it becomes evident there is a risk to someone, this is the golden rule that can be broken. People need to understand there are certain boundaries.

Listening – When you see someone having a hard time with their mental health, if you do nothing else, make sure you listen. This can be one of the most empowering things you can do to help.

Say what you see, but show empathy, not sympathy – if you are getting the sense someone is having a tough time, say it to them, but don’t try to counteract this with your own feelings or experiences. Showing empathy and recognising that their issues are unique to them, is much more helpful and supportive.

Impartiality – You may not necessarily understand why someone is feeling the way they do, but that’s OK. It’s important to understand that people’s emotions can be different, including our own.

Taking action – When someone has come to you and you have offered tools for support, ensure that you follow this through and are guided by the choices they wish to make.

Being mindful of your own needs – Give yourself prep and recovery time, and ensure you are looking after your own mental health needs.

Authenticity – There is no pre-written script for helping others, and it’s important not to feel you need to take on the persona of someone else. We are all human, so just be yourself. It is enough.

But what about when we’re all apart?

Working remotely can have its challenges, so it is especially important to find ways to keep people having these conversations. We can:

Be proactive – Make sure you are regularly ‘checking in’ with people and asking how they are, or how their day or week has been.

Make non-task stuff a priority – Often we will have lots of meetings and tasks in our diaries, and will keep in touch with each other about these important things, but it’s also really important that we take the time to catch up on things that are not work related.

Keep appointments – keeping to things you’ve planned with people ensures they know that they are valued.

Be deliberate – Look out for things and be aware of what is happening around you, as it’s more difficult to do this when you are not all together.

Be more aware and keep talking about mental health – the more you talk about mental health and are aware of it, the more other people can see that its important and its OK to talk about it, and the more you will create and nurture a positive mental health culture.

It’s important to realise we are not working under normal circumstances, we are all working under a crisis, and for many of us our mental health has been up and down as we each navigate how the pandemic has affected us and those around us personally.

A lot of the touchpoints have been around tasks and work, and it’s really important to build in those times with your team members for personal conversations that are not about work, and creating those separate spaces and gaps between work tasks to really talk to each other about other things, so that you can spot when someone may be disengaging or struggling. Much of the work needs to be done before we get to this point, and this is about having lots of ongoing open conversations, now and into the future, not just when it comes to the crunch.

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