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Mental health within organisations - a preventative approach to managing teams

Our principal consultant Allan Duncan discusses intergrating preventative mental health measures into standard management tools

Over the past several years, our understanding of mental health issues in the workplace and on development projects has significantly increased. With increased awareness has come new ways to respond to, and address, mental health in the workplace, but these can miss the point. Instead of being reactive to the issue of our staff and team’s mental health, shouldn’t we be instilling mental health awareness and support into our standard management tools?

We have all seen the statistics highlighting the productivity and economic impacts of mental health issues:

  • 60% of employees experienced mental health issues because of work in the last year
  • 31% of the UK workforce has been formally diagnosed with a mental health issue
  • 46% of HR managers reported that 50% of their company’s staff turnover was due to staff burn out
  • £16,000 is the estimated yearly cost in lost productivity for each unhappy employee.

There are numerous issues which can have a direct impact on an individual’s mental health. From unrealistic expectations from their managers, bullying within organisations, and personal problems outside of the workplace. Most of the time people can deal with one, or maybe two of these pressure points and continue to function well. However, there is a fine balance and easy tipping point for everyone where these pressures build, resulting in mental health and wellbeing challenges.

There is a basic human imperative to help and support the people we work with, but there is also a very sound business imperative to address this within our workplaces, as set out in the statistics above.

Where organisations have acted on this, they have tended to have posters displayed, emails sent to staff and at times resources made available within HR departments to be available for staff in crisis to talk to. Although these strategies can provide staff with the support they may need in times of stress or crisis, once the issues have started to manifest themselves through decreased productivity or increasing absences, intervening at this late stage of peoples mental health management is not the most effective, or cost efficient for a company.

Instead we need to be making mental health management part of our general team project management, and proactively understand and support our project teams to recognise and address potential stress points.

So, what does this mean in practical terms for projects?

There are several easy actions that those in leadership roles can take to identify where issues might be arising;

  • What time are emails being sent; are they sending mails at 6am and still online at 10pm at night? Although this might be seen as having a hard working team member, unless there is something exceptional happening within the team, then this should be seen as either workloads being too large, or difficulty prioritising their work, either of which are not healthy, sustainable or productive practices. Set some time aside to talk to them and understand why they feel they need to be working these hours; talk through activities that can be paused, or dropped and understand how they are prioritising and make sure it’s in line with key projects and objectives. Identifying and talking through core issues early can help to eliminate burn out and the possibility of staff leaving roles.
  • Are people taking their holidays /weekends off? Similar to the issue above, apart from exceptional circumstances, are staff working at these times due to unrealistic workloads that need to be addressed, or do they may feel the need to ‘be seen’ during these times to emphasis to their manager or within the project, or wider organisation, that they are an essential member of staff as without that they may feel their position is under threat in some way. Again, it’s important to understand the underlying causes and to catch it early and discuss ways to improve their work practices, reduce their workload and provide reassurance about their position in the team.
  • Do people have a chronic low-level illness? It is very common for mental health issues to start to manifest through persistent low-level conditions such as continual tiredness and broken sleep. Although these signs can be a symptom of various issues, they can be an early indication of depression. Seeking medical advice as soon as possible should be encouraged.  

The other critical steps that those in leadership roles can do is to lead by example and get to know your team. It sounds obvious, but it can be difficult within high pressure/productive projects. If you are sending emails out of hours it encourages that culture, so you must think about your behaviours and ensure they are encouraging the work place you wish to provide for your teams. And getting to know your team and more importantly facilitating and encouraging team members getting to know one other can be one of the most effective tools to identify when people’s behaviour is changing and to enable an intervention at the earliest opportunity. This is more than a once a year team building exercise, and it needs to be led from the front. Encouraging discussion about general personal issues, such as weekend plans, holiday plans and hobbies, helps you to build a picture of who they are and what’s going on. Building this culture of personal contact within your team, also provides multiple channels of support and information when needed, so our wellbeing isn’t just the project manager’s responsibility but everyone’s.

These discussion points only skim the surface of what can and should be done within team management. However, in these increasingly pressurised times of growing competition, squeezed margins, and political uncertainty, having a happy, healthy team who feel supported and listened to provides a stable workforce with reduced costs and the higher productivity that we all need.