Brendan Street: Why it’s time employers learn to listen this Time to Talk Day

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Employers must learn to listen this Time to Talk Day

According to the ‘Thriving at Work’ report, mental ill health is costing the UK economy anywhere between £1,205 and £1,560 a year per employee. Clearly, poor mental health is an all-too-common issue that is undermining workplace productivity and employee wellbeing. Time to Talk Day is a good example of a campaign raising the profile of mental health in the workplace and encouraging an open dialogue.

However, while 80 percent of employers believe their employees would be comfortable talking about their mental wellbeing, only five percent of employees would do so. Clearly a disconnect exists. To address the growing problem of mental ill-health at work, instead of the responsibility falling on employees to talk, it’s time employers learnt to listen…

Active listening

Despite encouraging progress being made, talking about mental ill health in the workplace remains a taboo with fear of discrimination and a lack of shared language being widely cited as barriers to disclosure.

Alarmingly, over three quarters of employees feel ‘uncomfortable’ discussing their emotional wellbeing at work; a worrying statistic which highlights how much more needs to be done.

To combat this, it’s important employers embrace the basic principles of ‘active listening’, making a conscious effort to hear not only the words another person is saying, but also the message they are trying to convey, the meaning for them.

If you’re worried about an individual’s emotional state, or someone has reached out for help, make sure to speak with them in a private yet informal space, away from the rest of the workforce to limit distractions.

Be aware of your body language too; make sure your demeanour is relaxed, open and engaged to encourage a person to tell their story.

Regular feedback and reflection is also important to share the load and show you’re equally committed to the conversation.

Decoding language

According to research from The Journal of Positive Psychology, diagnostic terms (such as depression or anxiety) should be avoided when it comes to discussing mental health, in favour of a more general discussion about emotions and feelings.

By sticking to rigid definitions of what it is to be bipolar, depressed or anxious, conversations can become limited, particularly if someone doesn’t feel they fit the definition. Instead, expanding our emotional vocabulary opens up the potential for a greater number of coping strategies, makes discussions feel less judgemental and allows for a more meaningful exploration of the individual’s distress.

Language can tell us a great deal about a person’s mental and emotional state, so it’s important you’re sensitive to subtle shifts that might indicate an issue is developing such as increased negativity, withdrawal or irritability.

Seek expert opinion

As the old saying goes, ‘a conversation is a two-way street’. However, it can be easy to fall into the trap of second-guessing responses, interrupting, or making someone’s personal story about yourself.

It’s an employer’s prerogative to listen, not diagnose and to support an employee on their wellbeing journey, not treat them.

If an employee chooses to disclose their mental health status to you, it’s important you encourage them to seek the opinion of an expert, be it a GP, Cognitive Behavioural Therapist, counsellor or psychiatrist, whether it’s provided via the workplace or not.

For example, particular individuals might benefit the most from seeing a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist who can equip them with the skills to build and maintain emotional resilience, changing the way they think about themselves, others and situations long-term.

Action speaks the loudest

While it’s essential to develop listening skills, sometimes practical solutions are just as necessary.

It may be a hard-hitting statistic that 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health problem, but what’s more important is for employers and HR leaders to take a “4 in 4 approach” to emotional wellbeing. After all, everyone has a mental state to protect and enhance.

Under the Equality Act, employers are required by law to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ and not discriminate in the process of recruiting, retaining or promoting staff.

However, going one step further and leading through best practice is a win-win strategy for everyone. Employees will feel they’re wellbeing is cared about and empowered to start their own journeys towards better mental health. Businesses will reap the rewards of reduced absenteeism and PMI spend, boosted morale and higher productivity rates.

You can promote wellbeing at work by weaving mental health discussions into your induction meetings and training, ensuring staff know you’re there to listen and what support is available.

Even something as simple as setting up regular informal catch-ups between line managers and their team members can encourage disclosure if an employee feels they have too much or little responsibility and positive actions can be agreed between both parties and put into place.

Investing in an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) can also support staff members by offering free access to confidential counselling. The data collected from EAP use can help identify who in your workforce is most at risk of mental health issues and in need of additional support.

In addition, establishing a network of mental health champions across all areas and levels of the business can spearhead open dialogue and underline your commitment to every employee’s emotional wellbeing. As can offering emotional literacy training to the workforce, equipping staff with the skills they need to recognise the signs of mental ill health in others.

A workforce which is trained to both listen and speak when it comes to mental health is what’s needed to address this major issue affecting businesses up and down the country.

 

Interested in wellbeing and mental health?  We recommend the Mental Health Awareness Training Day and Workplace Wellbeing and Stress Forum 2019.

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About Brendan Street

Brendan Street is the Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing at Nuffield Health, the UK’s largest independent not-for-profit health and wellbeing organisation which supports businesses in looking after their employees.

Brendan is a BABCP Accredited Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist and Supervisor with over 25 years’ worth of experience treating mental health problems in the NHS and private sector.

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