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Empathy, not sympathy… how HR can show it’s okay to not be okay

To really change how mental health issues are seen in the workplace, we need more leaders who are willing to showcase their successful careers alongside talking about their own mental health challenges.

With the ongoing psychological toll of COVID-19, many conversations that arose on WMHD (10 October) are an amplification of concerns that were already being expressed. It’s great that this important issue is being talked about, and it’s commendable that businesses are working hard to implement mental health support initiatives – but it’s time to go further.

Just as ethnic minority leaders can champion ethnic diversity, inspiring and being aspirational for others, to really change how mental health issues are seen in the workplace, we need more leaders who are willing to showcase their successful careers alongside talking about their own mental health challenges.

Celebrities and other public figures are increasingly talking about their mental health struggles and how they’ve persevered despite these setbacks. But for most workers, it’s going to be people in their own industry or company – people they can relate to – who will make the best mental health role models. And who is in a better position to lead the way than HR?

But what does being a role model for mental health challenges look like? It’s not simply a case of someone saying, ‘I’m Jane, your HR Business Partner. I’ve got a history of depression – please feel free to chat to me if you’re ever feeling down.’ Jane’s story will need to be told time and again, and held up as an example of what success can look like despite, and in some cases, because of, her depression. It’s also ideal – if Jane is comfortable to do so – for her to get involved in company mental health initiatives so she’s accessible to the workforce and able to share advice and support.

Willing participants only

The first step in establishing mental health HR role models is to find people who are very comfortable to tell their story, and who have ideally had some life experience that they can translate into tangible advice for others.

Pressuring someone into being open about their mental health struggles is definitely not the right approach. If there isn’t anyone in your HR team who fits the bill and is enthusiastic about being a mental health role model, then cast a wider net to see who else in your business might be willing to volunteer.

Once you have your role model/s selected, think about how you’re going to connect them with your workforce. Each role model will probably have their own ideas about how best to relate to the workforce, and insights into the sort of role model that might have been helpful for them earlier in their career.

Introducing your mental health role models

Perhaps you could introduce your mental health role model to your business with an interview-style article that delves into the role model’s career, their mental health challenges, and how one has impacted the other.

Whenever you’re telling your role model’s story, remember that being able to talk about overcoming adversity is helpful, but don’t forget to also celebrate where, what might be perceived as a mental health challenge, has actually been helpful. Without stereotyping mental health conditions, examples may include someone who manages OCD who might have a high attention to detail which can be an asset in the right role; or someone with anxiety who might be a very empathetic manager and who gets great results from their team.

Walk the talk

It’s also important for your role model to actually ‘model’ helpful behaviours. Choosing a role model who has worked on their mental health challenges in positive and constructive ways, and who then lives and breathes those behaviours at work, gives the workforce an example to follow.

Different coping strategies will work for different people, so one role model is by no means able to show everyone how to manage their own mental health concerns. But the role model can embody what can be achieved alongside ill mental health (acute or chronic), and that it doesn’t need to spell the end of someone’s career.

Mental health workplace mentors

If your role model is comfortable being a mentor, perhaps you could introduce the concept of mental health mentoring. Mentoring relationships have the scope to cover a wide range of needs, so why not bring mental health to the forefront of the mentoring agenda for those employees who express this need?

Firm boundaries are required to ensure mentoring isn’t confused with counselling, and your mentors should have guidelines about what to do if they feel the person they are mentoring needs more support than what they can offer (and vice-versa if a mentee has concerns about their mentor’s mental health). But both mentors and mentees who manage mental health challenges alongside work could benefit from sharing coping strategies and providing inspiration for each other, so it’s a programme that’s worth exploring.

A safe person to talk to

An alternative to a formal mentoring programme is for your mental health role model to simply make it clear they’re happy and available to talk to members of staff about mental health challenges. Showing they’re accessible, and that they’ll provide an empathetic ear could be invaluable for employees who aren’t sure who to raise mental health issues with.

If the role model’s story is well known within the workplace, that will help reduce barriers that people might otherwise feel in being able to start a conversation about their own mental health. Organisations are already adopting the idea of mental health first aiders – but knowing that the first aider manages their own challenges will make them feel like a ‘safer’ person to talk to.

Mental health role models are the critical next step in normalising mental health conversations in the workplace. Being sympathetic to an employee’s mental ill health is one thing, but being able to empathise and say, ‘I’ve been there’ and then show how you moved past/continue to manage a mental health challenge has a lot more impact. If HR shows that it’s okay to talk about mental health concerns, this will set a precedent for the rest of the workforce. And, imagine how much impact a CHRO could have if they were the role model, and the one starting the conversation!

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