World Mental Health Day: Our COO, Isabel Podda reflects on why support policies cannot be one size fits all

‘Shunning the broad brush in mental health policies’

People are our biggest asset. Their wellbeing is therefore our chief concern. In promoting a diverse and inclusive culture, we must shun the broad brush and accept the associated challenge of catering our wellbeing support to the different needs of different colleagues.

Employers across the globe have recognised that providing employees with mental health support is absolutely key. However sadly many are still treating this as a tick box exercise which they attempt to plug with apps and EAPs (Employee Assistance Programmes). The list of top mental health benefits principally focus on meditation, external support and social activities.  This is all to be commended and represents a giant leap forward by the corporate world.  However, we are still not quite in the best position we could be.  Why? Because many of these policies fail to look at their team as human beings who are individuals.

Each one of us has our own type of mental resilience, tendency for anxiety and most importantly preferred way of communicating and sharing. I have heard so many times over the years people saying it is important that their teams bring their whole selves into the workplace and be open and share with their colleagues. I have never been convinced by this. Compelled behaviour and uniform approaches go against the very essence of embracing individuality. For some, the ability to overtly share and feel openly supported allows them to thrive in their work environment. This personality type thrives off company fun and even improvisation sessions (as an extroverted introvert – my personal dread) and companies rightly need to provide outlets and support for this group. Others are more private individuals whose worst nightmare is being forced to give insight into their personal world. That should be respected rather than trying to force structured sharing – being an introvert is not an issue that needs solving or a condition that needs managing.

In mental health one size does not fit all. Not everything can be solved by a mindfulness session or an app. Too often the temptation is to throw technology at an issue. In reality, the answer is only partially in utilising such devices, while also respecting the quiet wish of others to be left to their own.

Listen and learn

What can corporates be doing better? The answer is very simple: listen, learn and train and then adapt for your team members. Think of the zealous manager who firmly believes that their team should adapt to their leadership style, versus the more empathetic manager who learns how their individual team members react to different management styles. Both styles may see success, but the former will also risk high-potential employees falling by the wayside, disenfranchised by being uncomfortably wedged into a cookie-cutter approach. The second management approach is more flexible and, while it requires greater mental agility and investment, better reflects the reality of working with diverse environments and teams. Mental health support is very much the same and indeed is part of the challenge of managing. Take every opportunity to listen and learn about your team members.

Your first opportunity comes through their onboarding. This is a challenging time for anyone no matter what level they are joining at. Not only is it imperative to ask questions about how they like to be supported, but also to watch for any signs through behaviours that they might need extra support as they settle into their new environment. After the initial onboarding, remember every management chat and check in, review or even day to day collaboration is a chance to learn more about your teams and what they need from you and the business more widely. I have talked previously about the vital role of a company’s values in supporting this and yet we still often work within business where values at best are stuck on a wall and used to impress clients rather than be embedded into culture, policies and most importantly actions.

Let’s face it, for most companies it would be impossible to train everyone as mental health first aiders (much as I would love to see that happen). However, we can train more widely on active listening and sign posting. Ensure your human resource teams are actively supporting the managers and advising them. Harvard Business Review discusses this in the article ‘New Managers, you can create a workplace that values mental health’.

Active management

Your people are your biggest asset. My ask of the corporate world for the coming year is therefore to keep progressing, keep advocating and keep putting mental health at the forefront of your people policies.

As ever, World Mental Health Day should be appreciated as a time where real focus is placed on the ever-growing issues surrounding mental health. However, please remember that mental health is not just an issue once a year but a 365 day one that needs to be sitting at the core of a company’s people policies and values. This can be easy to overlook alongside ‘the day job’, but organisations that adopt an approach of only ever brushing their teeth the day of a dentist appointment are going to find more disruptive interventions lay in waiting.

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