Why managers need mental health first-aid skills

Sydney, 18 April 2018 – Most employees don't feel comfortable discussing their mental health with their manager, highlighting the need for mental health first-aid skills in the workplace, research suggests.

A Medibio study of 3,500 employees from 41 organisations found 58 per cent of respondents would feel comfortable approaching a colleague about their mental health, but only 47 per cent would discuss the topic with a manager.

Among the respondents, 36 per cent had depression, 33 per cent had anxiety and 31 per cent were stressed.

Further, most employees, even those who were considered to have "severe" mental illnesses, weren't seeking help (just 17% of people in moderate-to-severe ranges were engaged in any form of treatment). "The severity and disability is akin to a colleague or loved one receiving no medical intervention for relapsing MS, hepatitis C or severe asthma to name a few – something that would be considered an outrage," the report says.

Conversations crucial to managing mental health

Meanwhile, Aon client manager Melanie Bonifacio told HR Daily that a growing number of employers are understanding the importance of mental health first aid in the workplace.

These skills are "really valuable" for leaders to better manage workplace mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, psychosis or substance abuse, and crisis situations such as suicidal thoughts or panic attacks.

Bonifacio says a best-practice approach to managing mental health is to upskill frontline managers so they can respond appropriately to a disclosure or to signs an employee's mental health might be declining.

Leaders must understand what poor mental health looks like, she says. "So if we're starting to see some changes in how [employees] present – maybe it's how they're coming in to work on a Monday, or maybe what their work output is starting to look like and it's not how that person usually performs – it's being aware of those changes and feeling confident to start [a] conversation with that person."

Other signs might include an employee looking a bit dishevelled, changes in how they behave or interact with colleagues, or an increase in absenteeism.

The key word here is "might", Bonifacio notes. "It's really important that leaders are non-judgemental and can communicate clearly with their direct reports or with their colleagues so they can understand what else is happening in that person's life. We don't need to jump to assume that everything is a mental health issue or crisis but it is important that that leader is capable of listening and hearing what that person has to say."

It is vital that leaders have the confidence to initiate this conversation with someone they believe might be suffering from mental ill health, she says.

They can let the employee or colleague know what they have noticed, using 'I' statements and asking open-ended questions, she says. For example: 'I'm concerned you are quite tired, and you arrive late to work most mornings. What has been happening outside of work for you?'

Leaders should be empathetic and use reflective listening before offering help, saying for example, 'what I'm hearing you say is...', and engage the employee in discussing how they are feeling: 'How long have you been feeling this way?', or 'describe to me what that is like for you.'

Then they should find out how the employee wants to be helped, Bonifacio says – 'how can I support you in the workplace?'

It's important for leaders to remember that they are the mental health first aider, and not the employee's mental health professional, she says. "It is incredibly important you understand how to continue to encourage somebody to seek appropriate professional help."

About Aon

Aon plc (NYSE:AON) is a leading global professional services firm providing a broad range of risk, retirement and health solutions. Our 50,000 colleagues in 120 countries empower results for clients by using proprietary data and analytics to deliver insights that reduce volatility and improve performance.

For further information please contact: