Compassion means business – Part 1

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March 17th, 2016

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Mental wellbeing
– the line manager’s role

part 1I’m not sure I’ve seen Fiona Bruce so angry. David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, got quite a grilling by the BBC newscaster recently (15.02.16). The Taskforce report published that day by Mental Health England found that 75% of those with mental health problems receive no help at all from the NHS and Bruce was pressing the Prime Minister on what he was “actually going to do about it”. His answers were evasive. No doubt he was looking at the recommendations and seeing a multi-billion-pound hole in the nation’s budget if he promised to respond to all the report’s recommendations. The sum of £1bn extra each year he has allocated to mental health is likely to be a drop in the ocean because this is no peripheral problem. One in four of us will suffer from mental health problems each year with an estimated annual cost to our economy of a staggering £105bn.

But before we take the easy route and blame politicians, we should bear in mind another report published by the charity Business in the Community last week: Leading on Mental Wellbeing: Transforming the Role of Line Managers. This report suggests that line managers have a crucial role to play in spotting the early signs of stress and mental illness amongst their employees. It’s not just the government’s or the NHS’s job. We all have a role. And it starts with a basic level of care for our employees’ wellbeing.

Senior management delusion

Unfortunately, Senior Managers maybe somewhat deluded as to how cared-for their employees feel. According to Roffey Park’s 19th Annual Management Agenda research, also published at the same time, 84% of Board Directors surveyed felt that their organisations ‘effectively demonstrates care and concern for the wellbeing of staff’. Only 44% of junior managers agreed.

Get real…

But can we really expect line managers to be purveyors of care and compassion in the cut throat world of business? Well – Gallup’s research has repeatedly shown that if employees in a business unit can answer ‘strongly agree’ to the statement ‘My supervisor (or someone at work) cares about me as a person’ then that business unit is likely to have higher productivity, profitability, customer satisfaction and lower staff turnover. The ‘soft stuff’ delivers hard business results. Compassion means business. Our CEO at Roffey Park, Michael Jenkins, has made this issue something of a personal campaign and has spoken in a number of countries in Europe and Asia on the need for ‘Caring Charisma’ and compassion from our business leaders. Roffey Park’s research team are also working on a tool to message the levels of compassion in the workplace.

But if, as the Business in the Community report suggests, our line managers are on the frontline of mental health, how might we help them fulfil this role? I think there are two key things we need to do:

  1. Lower the stigma of talking about mental health issues in the workplace.

In the Fiona Bruce interview, Cameron admitted that the stigma of mental health was still a real problem. Just by publicising the fact that one in four of us will suffer from mental health problems each year is helpful in itself: those that are living with this ‘secret’ may feel less alone. At Roffey Park, my colleague, Benedict Eccles, has helped bring the issues out in the open with learning lunches that explode some of the myths, and increase our understanding of mental health issues. Organisations can also tap into the annual ‘Time to Talk’ Day that is promoted by the mental health charity Mind on the first Thursday of February to encourage more open conversations. Put the date in your diary for 2017.

But we also need to create an environment in which our employees are able to talk about things that affect their mental wellbeing as and when they arise. To do this we need to:

  1. Encourage and equip line managers to hold regular, effective one-to-ones with their reports.

Line managers may need some reassurance that they will not be expected to become trained therapists or counsellors or delve into personal problems way out of their depth. But a regular, scheduled time to have a good conversation can do wonders in promoting mental wellbeing. And by a ‘good’ conversation, I don’t mean:

  • ‘How are things going?’ the rhetorical question delivered as the manager breezes by their desk in an open plan office. The answer will invariably be: ‘Fine!’ in that kind of context. It neither communicates real care or provides an environment where people feel able to really open up.
  • ‘My door is always open’. This may sound well-meaning, but this is also likely to be ineffective in communicating that you care or in unearthing real problems. Employees often see your busy-ness and may not want to disturb you. Or they may fear what others will think if they are seen talking to the boss behind closed doors, when this is not something they normally do.

Informal approaches are often too piecemeal to pick up on either performance problems or threats to their mental wellbeing.

Prevention is better than cure

My work as a workplace mediator in a previous role brought this home to me in a big way. Invariably, in a dispute between a manager and their report, the line manager’s main learning at the end of the mediation process was that they should have scheduled-in regular one-to-ones. The problem would have been nipped in the bud when it was much more manageable if they had done so. Regular, programmed one-to-ones are ideal opportunities for employees to open up, if handled in the right way. Having said that, not everyone’s experience of one-to-ones with their line manager has been life enhancing!

Next time…

That is why, in Part 2, I will look at how managers can create a one-to-one environment that is likely to communicate care, promote mental wellbeing and, by doing so, enable great performance. I will also be offering a free downloadable pdf guide to effective one-to-ones including a simple one-to-one record form.