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Mental health conversations at work are vital

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Mental health problems can be an issue that anyone experiences at any stage of their lives. But how equipped are we in the workplace to deal with it?

It’s easy to see why project management can be a stressful role – the number of moving parts with little predictability, the constant need for problem solving, tight deadlines, constricted budgets, multiple stakeholders, fast decision-making and often more than one boss to report to. And just because a project professional performed well on one difficult project doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll cope with another one. There could be a whole variety of life events that mean our resilience to stress could change, resulting in mental health problems.

We need to consider our management style to support the worker, comply with ‘duty of care’ legislation but at the same time manage performance and get the project delivered. Another consideration is the matrix structure of project management and what happens when you see a member of the team who isn’t your direct report experiencing stress and mental health issues – who takes responsibility for having the conversation?

Mental health issues are difficult for both parties all involved may find it uncomfortable to have the conversation and problems can often escalate.

However, it’s vital that issues are managed effectively and with compassion. In my experience, workplaces that promote mental health awareness and support people who are suffering from issues are likely to have less absenteeism, increased productivity and better team working.  Handled well, it can also often determine how quickly people are able to get back to performing effectively. And dealing empathetically with people who declare a condition is not just about retaining valuable staff, it also demonstrates how you truly live your company values.

A vital part of managing people involves watching stress levels and workload - particularly in the hybrid world, where people feel extra pressure to respond to emails late at night or to work later when they are at home.

So, how are weas managers expected to manage them? Firstly, it’s useful to understand the symptoms which can be wide ranging; on top of anxiety and worrying, it could be excessive paranoia, sadness, irritability, extreme mood changes, withdrawal, or dramatic changes in eating or sleeping patterns. The person may lose confidence, have less energy, feel less pleasure from the things that they used to do, feel more agitated, or in worst case scenario have dark thoughts or contemplate suicide.

The next step in being able to manage mental health at work is for managers and organisations to understand their role and responsibilities:

  • Setting expectations with the team
  • Understanding HR protocol
  • Becoming knowledgeable on well-being
  • Being open and available
  • Looking out for ‘red flags’
  • Initiating conversations
  • Understanding how to manage difficult conversations
  • Considering what interventions/adjustments to apply

It’s critical that untrained managers don’t offer advice or try to ‘fix’ any situations that team members disclose. It’s important to know when to refer team members on, so get to know who is there to help including any workplace Psychologists, EAP programmes or other referral schemes.

But before even referring people, we must encourage them to open up and discuss how they are feeling. This isn’t easy as people are reticent to talk for many reasons e.g. worries that other may think they’re 'weird' or exclude them, feeling that they won’t be taken seriously, embarrassment, not understanding what is wrong themselves, fear of being judged, fear for their job and role, not wanting to be treated any differently and worried that rumours may spread. Of course, the irony is that all these feelings are exacerbating anxiety which could compound the illness.

Tips for project managers to consider

Project management can be very ‘task focused’ which can often make us feel like we don’t have time for deep conversations or, maybe we feel uncomfortable talking about emotional issues. Having a mental health conversation takes different skills that we should keep in mind:

  • Keep questions very open, short and less specific than usual
  • Really listen actively
  • Think about language and tone
  • Allow them to finish their sentences and complete thoughts without interrupting
  • Don’t hijack the conversation; focus on the other persons needs
  • Avoid being judgmental or trying to fix things
  • Reassuring the person that they are doing the right thing by talking about it and checking whether they have spoken to a doctor or a counsellor.

 If you’re a line manager and during a performance management conversation someone reveals mental health problems, it’s important to focus first on the mental health issue. Ensure this is completely covered and support offered before starting to discuss the performance again. Often adjustments might be required but in any of these situations it is vital to consult with HR early and often too.

If you’re managing the person in a matrix situation then you can still have a conversation with them if you are noticing things which point towards poor mental health. However, it is worth consulting with their line manager, with discretion, to find out whether they have already had a conversation and if any action has been agreed. If someone is underperforming in the project team talk to them or their line manager to see if there are any underlying issues.

Remember, mental health issues don’t define a person and it’s possible they will never encounter these problems again. So, think of it like any other illness whereby the person has symptoms, treatment, and recovery (though this may be different for different people). Having the chance to talk openly and not repress feeling can make a massive difference.

It is time to normalise mental health conversations in the workplace - for everyone’s sake.


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