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TIME TO TALK, HOW TO TALK

Article by Eileen Donnelly

Starting a conversation about mental health with colleagues could be one of the most difficult but impactful things a manager can do.  How taking this crucial step will ultimately help improve employee job satisfaction and productivity.

Few managers realise what a dramatic impact – either positive or negative – they have on their employees through their everyday behaviour. It is the responsibility of senior leaders to enlighten them and provide the organisational context that consistently fosters high-quality relationships between bosses and the people who report to them.

A happy workforce leads to higher levels of customer satisfaction, lower absenteeism, and low staff turnover resulting in higher profitability. The connection between happiness at work and overall life satisfaction means that improving employee happiness could make a material difference to workers, organisational health and healthy profits.

When it comes to employee happiness, bosses and supervisors play a significant role. Research has shown that people in workplaces with good management relations are significantly more satisfied. (The Boss Factor, McKinsey) A good manager creates a sense of trust and confidence, and a safe and collaborative environment encourages joint problem-solving generating innovation, a sense of achievement and higher levels of customer satisfaction. This gives rise to a virtuous cycle where the manager may then be able to allocate more resources to their workers, further boosting job satisfaction and wellbeing among employees.

Research shows that good management consistently produces better results. NHS Trusts with good management were over three times more likely to have the lowest levels of sickness absence and more than twice as likely to have staff with the highest levels of job satisfaction, (Good People Management, NHS)

As a manager there should be only one goal – to support your employees and make their lives easier. However, there are very few that manage to fully commit to this servant-leader mentality. The philosophy of servant leadership differs from traditional leadership where the main focus is on the success of the business, and instead puts the needs of employees first, helping them to develop and perform as highly as possible. It requires a mindset shift which benefits not only employees, but the manager themselves, who will see their own wellbeing and job satisfaction increase as a result. Managers are the conduit between employee engagement and wellbeing. They have a contagion effect – managers with high wellbeing tend to have employees with high wellbeing. A degree of emotional intelligence will make this so much easier, and to some extent this is a skill that can be learnt.

In the most supportive organisations, leaders act differently and are described as being ‘open, warm and human’ when it comes to employee mental health. (Accenture, 2019) However, Gallup research contends that only one in ten people possesses the necessary traits that great managers exhibit, and companies fail to choose the right talent for management positions 82% of the time.

In the wake of Covid and as people return to the workplace, leaders must consider the mental health impacts on employees. Not only must they train managers in how to recognise the signs of anxiety, PTSD and depression – but also give them the confidence to open up a conversation with a colleague.

At Ripple & Co, we have recently worked with health charity and workplace first aid trainer St John Ambulance to develop a course that trains managers and mental health first aiders how to do this. Using an actor to facilitate effective role play, the Supportive Conversations training gives line managers the confidence and skills to support their employees and develop more authentic, human-centred work relationships. It encourages managers to nurture wellbeing, and to create an open culture where employees feel psychologically safe, supported and able to deliver their best work.

Not only has St John begun to offer Supportive Conversations training to external organisations but it has begun rolling it out among staff and volunteers – whose incredible work during the pandemic may have taken a toll on mental health.

As we navigate the post-pandemic work environment, it’s important to understand that Covid-19 has impacted various population groups and workers differently. It has also heightened existing inequalities with the negative impacts unevenly distributed across different demographic segments.

Groups particularly affected have been low-paid workers, self-employed, ethnic minority workers, those with disabilities or those clinically vulnerable to Covid-19. 4.5 million people have been forced to become unpaid carers during the pandemic, with many having to juggle full-time work and home-schooling.  9 out of 10 people with additional caring responsibilities feel it has negatively affected their mental health. Young people have seen the greatest increase in mental distress (The Lancet, October 2020), with a higher risk of job loss and acute feelings of loneliness.

During the pandemic, people were most concerned about their wellbeing, household finances and their work. This has given rise to an increase in mental ill health, with anxieties heightened by loneliness, relationship status, safety, health concerns, working from home and job security among many others. Workers who continued to work in the workplace, from home, or were furloughed had different challenges and triggers for anxiety, leading to negative coping strategies including an increase in alcohol consumption and unhealthy sleeping and eating habits.

So, what are the signs of mental ill health that you need to watch out for? They include deterioration in performance, low mood and loss of self-confidence. Those with anxiety may experience physical, psychological and/or behavioural effects such as palpitations, mind racing or going blank, or repetitive compulsive behaviours. If you are able to identify the signs of mental ill health in your employees, it is possible to get them the help they need quickly with a good chance of a full recovery.

The sizable role a boss plays in employee satisfaction and organisational performance provides an intriguing contrast with the simple measures needed to improve it, and micro-actions often count more than larger, structural changes. Research shows that leaders consistently fail to recognise how their actions affect and will be interpreted by others, and this is where the Supportive Conversations training can really help. It will provide line managers with the tools to recognise where and how they can make a difference, giving them the confidence and the skills to effectively support their employees and create a better workplace for all.

St John Ambulance

    Eileen Donnelly, founder of workplace wellbeing specialist, Ripple & Co, explains how taking this crucial step will ultimately help improve employee job satisfaction & productivity. A consultant for St John, Eileen has helped design its new Supportive Conversations courses, which train managers not only how to recognise signs of poor mental health among colleagues, as we return from Covid, but how to broach the subject with them.

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