How your organisation could be creating mental health issues one conversation at a time

Is your organisation creating mental health issues one conversation at time?

Part 1. The good news

It was recently mental health month and R U OK? day. It is heartening to see an important and increasing focus on mental health and encouraging others to check in, reach out or openly share when they’re not feeling OK.

The other day, as an example, I arrived for a meeting with a large organisation, to find they were holding a session on mental health.  They had recognised that mental illness and mental health is not something always comfortably discussed and they wanted to provide support to their staff.

Part 2. The unspoken challenge

And yet there’s another ongoing challenge that is not as explicitly talked about.

Too often organisations are lacking the very components that create an environment where the well-being of its people is supported and enhanced.

So what are these components?

Part 3. What we know

This is what we know.  Unless you are proactively creating a workplace culture:

  • that is respectful, positive and productive
  • that makes it safe and comfortable for staff and leaders to give and receive feedback
  • where poor behaviour and performance is appropriately called out and addressed and
  • good behaviour and performance is praised and acknowledged,

you are not effectively protecting and supporting your staff, your teams, your leaders or your business.

And it does require work.

Part 4. The work

The work required includes the setting and re-setting of agreed and acceptable behaviours and performance and creating accountability. This needs to be led by the leaders.

It requires leadership development, through coaching, mentoring and feedback so that leaders have self-awareness and the confidence and skills to communicate effectively, praise and appreciate staff and address issues as they arise.

Teams need to be strengthened and supported on an ongoing basis, so they work productively together and have a focus on kindness, care and good communication.

Staff need to feel valued, encouraged and confident to provide feedback and raise concerns.

All this can only occur if there is a skilled approach to building a foundation of trust and good communication. A continued theme we see is the need to develop in staff and leaders the ability to effectively communicate, connect and resolve conflicts and concerns.

And…if you already have a history of challenged behaviours and relationships in the workplace, there is often some work to do to rebuild the trust.  This includes encouraging staff to talk about the issues that are causing them resentment and distress.  This may need an independent person to open the discussion to help staff to find resolution and a new way forward.

Part 5. Real life examples

These are real life examples from our coaching and leadership development work that demonstrate the cost to people when this work is not done.

  • A manager in a community sector organisation who now has anxiety and distress as a result of being treated badly by her boss for over a year. Even though the boss has left, the manager hasn’t recovered because the behaviour had such a profound impact on her. At the time, the staff were intimidated and fearful of the boss, so nothing was said.
  • A partner in a professional services firm who has high expectations of staff but gives no praise, appreciation or even a kind word and only criticises, leaving staff feeling unvalued and unappreciated.
  • A good and committed manager in the public sector who has finally reached his limit and fallen apart after repeatedly trying to support a person in the workplace with very toxic behaviour. The ‘toxic’ person has now complained about the manager. This situation arose because expectations in relation to behaviour and performance weren’t clearly set and the bad behaviour wasn’t addressed in its early stages.
  • A manager in a private sector organisation who believes he is an excellent leader, yet doesn’t listen to his team, gets distracted or speaks over them while they talk and has never asked for feedback. His staff don’t dare to say a word about how unhappy they are. One staff member’s depression has been exacerbated from having to work more closely with him.
  • An executive team who are strong in saying that their staff need resilience training when it is clear that the executive team are a tight knit and closed group who talk behind people’s backs, make insensitive comments and cause regular distress to the staff including blaming them for the team’s problems.

There are also less dramatic examples which include staff not feeling listened to or valued, rarely if ever receiving appreciation for work well done, and inappropriate behaviours that are allowed to persist.

Part 6. The overall impact.

What we have seen in our consulting work (and backed up by a significant amount of research) is that too many good employees, with an excellent work ethic, great attitude and skill are reduced to a disengaged or distressed staff member by working everyday in a negative work culture.  The much needed conversations are just not happening.

Part 7. The needed conversations

The kinds of conversations we need to have more of include:

Real praise

  • (What was specifically done): Well done. You did a great job. The report was well researched, effectively structured and drew logical conclusions.  (Impact): It made it very easy to make recommendations and continue the important work we are doing. (Why keeping do it): Your commitment to delivering within the time frame with such quality work supports the team and makes it so much easier for me in my job.

Calling out inappropriate behaviour

  • (Observations): I noticed…. that in the meeting this morning you seemed frustrated and angry. (Impact and feelings): I felt … concerned about the impact on others and that it was causing a feeling of tension and unease in the team.  (Inquiry): What was happening for you?  (Acknowledgement/empathy): I can hear that you feel that some of the changes have been unfair and you feel frustrated and angry.  (In future/what I’d like): In future I’d like you to express those feelings in an appropriate way to me or not say anything until you have had an opportunity to settle down. Venting in every meeting is not appropriate.

Seeking feedback

  • Is there anything more as a manager I can help you with?
  • As far as my work as your manager goes, what are you happy with? What could I do more of or less of that would make a difference for you?

 Setting expectations in relation to behaviours

  • Today I’d like to hear from you all what behaviours you want in the team and what behaviours you don’t want. Let’s write these down and focus on gaining a team agreement.

Part 8.  The affected people

Some of the people referred to in those real life examples were fragile before joining the organisation, having experienced previous trauma or loss in their lives. Some were struggling with their mental health but managing well. Many commenced work feeling strong and mentally well, considering themselves able to manage most things that life dealt them.  Regardless, all these people found themselves tipped over, suffering as a result of the failure of an organisation to build a workplace culture that protected and supported them and made them feel safe.

The difference between coping or not coping with a loss, depression or challenging personal situation, is impacted by the extent to which a job beats you down or supports and lifts you up. And it doesn’t always require that much work to make all the difference.

Part 9. It can be better

Thankfully we have many examples of organisations that have taken the necessary action and chosen to give their staff support that helps them to be their best and even recover from severe challenges. The reality is that work life is not perfect and there will be always be some difficulties, disappointments and conflict.  However, with awareness, intention and the courage to have conversations to provide feedback, call out bad behaviour and support good behaviour and performance, it is possible to create a workplace culture that can help staff weather the storms and leave them intact or even flourishing.

At Brave People Solutions we provide practical skills to assist managers to prepare for and deliver great leadership conversations. If you would like to make the change, call us today on 0423 300 590.


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