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Managing Mental Health

Over the past 18 months, our mental health has been challenged to new levels. Understanding what mental health is and adapting to current challenges and preparing for the future is considered by many as critical to rapid economic recovery as businesses return to full operations.

“It’s OK not to be OK,” commented Matthew Holman, speaker for Southampton Science Park’s lunch and learn session on the topic. “Often, the only time managers have conversations with their staff about mental health is when an employee approaches them because they’re struggling. I understand why: mental health can be difficult to define, it can carry with it outdated stigma, and it is often difficult to talk about because we tend to deflect attention away from ourselves. However, this reticence to discuss and deal with issues surrounding mental health has to change. Businesses now have of duty of care, and a duty to care.”

Matthew went on to explain that every one of us has mental health. Mental health is how we feel, think and behave, how we cope with events, conflicts and the ups and downs of everyday life. It determines the impact that stress has on us, our confidence and how we see our future.

Levels of mental health or mental illness change constantly according to what’s going on around us. For many, the Covid-19 pandemic caused greater fears about the future, job and financial insecurity, uncertainty, anxiety about physical health, feelings of hopelessness and loneliness. Our mindsets switched rapidly from ‘living’ to ‘survival’. Pre-pandemic, one in ten people were experiencing depression but now it is one in five.

So, as a manager, how can you spot the signs and behaviours of staff who may be struggling with their mental health? “We’re not doctors and it’s not our role to diagnose a problem,” says Matthew, “but it is our role to recognise the signs.”

These signs could be in the use of negative language, changes in appearance suggesting limiting self-care, new behaviours such as a loss of interest and concentration, social withdrawal and anger, or emotional in terms of sadness or a feeling of not being good enough or helpless.”

Encouraging people to talk about their feelings can be difficult but remember that conversations around mental health don’t need to be negative, they can be positive too. Simply sitting with that person and genuinely listening is the key. Ask how they are feeling today and encourage honesty. Reassure them that it’s OK to talk about difficult subjects and it’s also OK if they don’t have the words to explain or pinpoint the problem. Engage in individual conversations to understand why specific people are feeling the way they are and what support they specifically need, recognising that individual circumstances are unique.

If you have a culture of openness, support and care, it becomes easier. This requires senior level commitment, a simple vision and a plan to deliver for your people. If you care about your staff, they will care about your business and your customers. Human to human businesses will thrive.

5 Ways to Get Mental Health on your Leadership Agenda:

  • Raise awareness. Provide education for all employees, identify events and support programmes and use them, continually.
  • Practice empathy and openness. Do things that make employees feel relaxed, less stressed and connected to others - they should understand how to value looking after themselves.
  • Value time. Stop booking out non-stop one-hour meetings. Instead, make them shorter to give people space to breathe. The secret to performance and productivity is to facilitate time to prepare, then perform and then recover. This recovery time is critical.
  • Tune in to signs that may indicate that someone is beginning to struggle. Remember these can be found in language, behaviours, emotions and physical appearance.
  • Look after yourself. The only way you can support others is by being fit, healthy and the strongest you can be yourself and you are the only one that is responsible for taking care of you.

Concluding the event, Matthew commented: “We’re at a really important point in the conversation about mental health. The culture is changing, and young people have expectations that their employers will look after them mentally now. It’s a new ‘human first’ world which requires flexibility to adapt to individual needs and a trust in people to do the right thing. Don’t be afraid to make that happen.”

Science Park Business Development Director, Jane Holt, thanked attendees for their time and commented on the ‘remarkable level of engagement which demonstrated that this is indeed a hot topic.’

Keep up to date with Southampton Science Park’s calendar of free Lunch & Learn webinars here.

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