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Why it’s time to empower employee mental health responsibility

Petra Velzeboer - PVL

HR teams are more overwhelmed than ever. Nervous managers often send colleagues to you if there is a personal challenge an employee may be facing, and individuals who are struggling with their mental health come straight to HR for resources and support. Managers are afraid they could say the wrong thing, make it worse, open Pandora’s box, generate a lawsuit and might prefer to step away from the conversation completely. HR takes on the case, but perhaps your team is really thinking “don’t they know that I’m not a mental health professional either and have work to do in recruitment, strategy, engagement and a million and one other things?”

Recently, I chatted to Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio London and she was surprised when I spoke about taking personal responsibility when it comes to our mental health. I explained that mental health at work takes both an organisational approach and personal responsibility, to make things work well. You can have all the resources at hand, but if individuals don’t take personal responsibility things aren’t going to change.

Many of us still think mental health is all about mental illness, and mental illness is about chemical imbalances, and beyond medication or therapy we must accept our state and seek out as many resources on offer as possible. With this in mind, is it any wonder some HR professionals are frustrated, or you are left wondering why your mental health strategy isn’t working in the way you thought it would?

The key to a meaningful mental health strategy at work is the education and empowerment of our people. As we live through the pandemic era, the time for this is certainly now, but what does empowerment look like and how can we help people take those steps to personal responsibility? Here are three key ways to begin to affect change.

1. Consider providing training for leaders and managers in how to have supportive, human conversations with their people
Open conversation is key, and this doesn’t have to be heavily reliant on noticing signs and symptoms. Rather, it is about developing the skills of emotional intelligence, empathy, active listening, and empowering people to access resources themselves – as well as focusing on what is in their control to support good mental health.

This can help you to confidently push back and support managers in having the difficult conversations themselves, rather than the responsibility for these always falling into HR teams.

2. Encourage employees to consider the impact they could make by creating change, however small
Small steps can lead to big changes and employee education, engagement and the use of curious coaching questions can empower your teams to create boundaries, to think about their environment, to sleep well, exercise, and access resources themselves. These technqiues will support individuals to put into action the things that will help them to continue to perform at work, even when they might be struggling with their mental health.

How about regularly asking colleagues “how are you going to invest in yourself today”, or having a team discussion about boundaries, what type of boundaries will support your employees to be their best selves and crucially, involving yourself in those answers?

3. Create a culture that supports and empowers radical responsibility across the board
What is radical responsibility? It’s the choice to take our power back and focus on finding solutions, rather than finding someone or something to blame. As well as building this through training and skills development at all levels of the business, it is also about simply ensuring there is space to have conversations about HOW we work, not just WHAT we work on.

This could include supporting managers to discuss their team working hours, expectations for flexible working, reviewing the ways we communicate in a hybrid world, out of hours or holiday working, other boundaries around work and the things that will help us improve our health.

And ask yourself this as you begin 2022… when was the last time your HR team really led by example and discussed these things amongst your own team first – and then were able to confidently share your learning and ideas with managers and leaders to empower them to support their teams?

Each week in my team, we rotate who will lead an exercise to help us connect. It’s not just my responsibility anymore. We will do anything from a five-minute meditation, to asking everyone to talk about something they’re proud of, or even to share a personal challenge being faced at that moment and how can we help to support each other. We’re a team. If there’s a ‘man-down’ this affects everyone, so we make a habit of creating space for reflection and connection.

Confident HR teams who can coach their managers on having difficult conversations, as well as preventative conversations which normalise mental health at work, will thrive when it comes to creating a positive mental health culture in the workplace.

When these things are happening and everyone is taking responsibility within their roles, and leading by example when it comes to investing in good mental health, not just crisis support, imagine where you’ll be. You may even have time for that cup of tea, and space to breathe and reflect on a strategic approach to mental health, rather than putting out fires the whole time.

Now that’s a world I want to live in. How about you?

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