Why Mental Health Awareness Week is so valuable

Sometimes I find it difficult to discuss mental health issues. In recognition of the importance of Mental Health Awareness Week, here are some pointers that helped me get better at it.

By Tim McEwan

Multiple studies and media reports suggest that mental health problems have exploded in the UK and around the western world due to the pandemic. Take the studies cited here as proof of this trend. Digging a little deeper, there are three key lessons for business leaders to take from this.

The first is that Covid is not a cause of mental health problems; it has been either a catalyst for pre-existing conditions – especially the most serious cases of depression and anxiety – and it has created the right environment for new cases to emerge.

The second lesson is that all this publicity has made mental health more of a high-profile talking point than ever before. This is a good thing. It helps us shed the stigma around the topic and brings it into focus as a constant and continuous challenge we should engage with proactively going forward. This is also why events such as Mental Health Awareness Week are so helpful, and the reason why I’m writing this article.

The third lesson is the most important: under no circumstances should managers try to solve their employees’ mental health challenges themselves.

That last point may come across as counter intuitive, so allow me to explain.

Personally, I sometimes feel at a disadvantage when discussing mental health issues. I can sympathise but not empathise, because I am lucky enough to have never really experienced anything I would describe as a mental health challenge.

I have never experienced PTSD. I don’t often feel stressed. I have never battled with depression or anxiety. I don’t often let obstacles get me down. When I do feel stressed, I am able to bounce back and put things in perspective reasonably quickly.

However, I recognise this. If you struggle to empathise with mental health issues, then you need to recognise this too. The ability to manage employees or support your colleagues who do suffer from mental health issues is likely to become extremely important in your career.

The reason I welcome the increased profile of mental health issues is that we in Britain have often struggled to have the necessary conversations around the topic. Put it down to the traditional ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality, perhaps. Whatever the cultural reasons, it seems to me there are two very practical reasons why we shy away from tough conversations:

  1. We’re not used to handling emotions out in the open and are uncomfortable when dealing with them.
  2. We don’t know what to do about it or how to react once the problem is acknowledged.

It’s because of this that I’m offering you the three steps I use to manage mental health issues. I hope you find them as useful as I have.

 

Step 1: Listen

“Listening is important.”

This won’t be the first time you’ve heard this advice. In fact, you may have heard it so often that it comes across as trite. Certainly, this is a phrase that’s used all too often and much too easily.

It is true in this case, however, that listening is vital. However, I’m extroverted and I tend to fill empty space with noise. I have to work hard to get comfortable with silence.

In that sense, I have to work hard at genuinely listening to others. I have to consciously and actively listen and avoid the temptation to jump in.

Often, when a conversation goes silent, I become uneasy. Yet it’s just as often the case that the person I’m talking to actually values the fact that I’m giving them space to think through what they want to say.

So let me clarify what I mean by listening. Practice getting used to silence. Avoid the temptation to babble on when someone wants to tell you something. When a colleague or employee comes to you to discuss a mental health issue, they are worried about how you might react. Allow them the time they need to explain how they feel.

You may not like it, but they will value your silence and appreciate your restraint.

 

Step 2: Know what to do when someone comes to you with a problem

This is true of any problem to some extent, but never more so than in the case of mental health.

When someone comes to you to talk to you about the stress they’re under – or that they’re depressed – what you mustn’t do is try to give them any advice on how to cope.

Mental health problems are very often serious medical conditions, so trying to solve them yourself is akin to attempting an appendectomy with a pen knife and a large dose of overconfidence. I’m exaggerating not to mock, but rather to make a serious point: if you try to do too much you could end up doing more harm than good.

You also should avoid taking on the emotional burden of your team members’ problems and carrying them around on your shoulders. That’s not good for them or for you.

You don’t have to be the person that solves their problems, but you should know where to find help. You should be able to point them in the right direction – either by referring them to a trained professional within your organisation, or by supporting them while they seek help from a doctor.

Increasingly I’m seeing organisations start to use ‘mental health first aiders’ – people who are the mental health equivalents of paramedics, able to offer short term help while connecting the sufferer with more sustainable long-term solutions.

Our Head of Coaching recently took a mental health first aid course with exactly that goal in mind – a story I hope we can return to in a future article.  

 

Step 3: Offer continuous support and understanding

Mental health problems do not go away overnight. They need constant support and understanding. Once a colleague or team member has been brave enough to reveal their struggles with you and seek help, you need to be conscious of this and take that into consideration when working with them going forward.

There’s no point an employee coming to me to say they’re struggling and under pressure and it’s making them depressed – and for me to get them professional support – only for me to turn around the following week and give them 20 urgent tasks to do in three days

Awareness and sensitivity are key here, and you need to be mindful in all your interactions. If and when they are ready for more responsibility, they will tell you. That in itself is a valuable form of support.

We all have blinders when it comes to mental health. Some of us may have issues that we don’t know how to deal with and be unsure where to turn for help. Some of us may have seen loved ones struggle with serious depression for years. And some of us are uncomfortable even talking about it.

Yet if we take nothing else from Mental Health Awareness Week, we should all acknowledge the value of talking openly about our mental health, and of listening to our friends and colleagues when they do the same.

 

If you are interested in finding out more please contact Tim McEwan or visit www.sheffieldhaworthleadership.com 

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