Management skills they don’t teach at business school

Line managers may find their direct reports opening up to them about personal matters during a meeting. If mental health issues raise their head, are they equipped to deal with them? Here are some tips that anyone can learn and practise.

If team members really trust their manager, it’s quite possible that personal issues will come up during a review meeting or a one-to-one. Employees may reveal things that they don’t tell anyone else, not even their closest friend or partner. Small wonder that managers can sometimes find themselves in the position of confidant providing more than just professional support.

Challenging emotional states can affect anyone at any time. We all know stress is on the increase and conditions like depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts can affect all of us.

So if a team member perhaps isn’t in the right frame of mind to work to the best of their ability, or who are just ‘out of sorts’ and want to talk, how should managers respond?

Use existing skills

A good manager is someone who listens. When a person is in distress, finding someone to hear them out is a ‘tonic to the soul’, so managers should be ready to give them space to talk. Here’s a recap on some basic listening skills.

  • Ask open questions (such as, ‘how are you feeling?’).
  • Reflect back what they say without needing to add more (‘you feel a bit low’).
  • Summarise/paraphrase what they say after a while (again, there’s no need to add more).
  • Use open body language and non-verbal listening (eye contact, nods, encouraging sounds).
  • Give an empathic response (such as, ‘that must be very difficult’).

Signpost to further support

Often, providing the space to offload is enough to make someone feel better. But if they need more support, their manager shouldn’t be afraid to suggest seeking further help.

‘Have you thought of speaking to your GP about this?’ This is a empathic comment which encourages self-care. Mental health awareness training will give managers plenty of other ideas for referral to other sources of support.

Be aware of signs

It can be incredibly difficult to spot the signs of mental ill-health. Fine-tuning listening skills will help. If a manager gives someone space and they take it, that’s usually a good thing.

When they do know someone well, it’s wise simply to notice any obvious changes in behaviour. Are they quieter than usual? More talkative? Unable to concentrate? Distracted? Tearful? Or are they talking about something very sad (such as a bereavement) in a light-hearted way? These might be reasons to ask an open question that allows them to talk more honestly.

Become ‘mental health aware’

Mental health awareness is something that many organisations value highly nowadays. Poor mental health has overtaken musculoskeletal problems as a cause of absence, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD).

Companies are training up mental health first aiders to provide front-line support to colleagues struggling with stress, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, psychosis, and other mental health conditions.

It pays to prepare your line manager with some training. Even a half-day mental health awareness workshop will increase their understanding of these conditions and help them to:

  • spot the signs in colleagues
  • ‘normalise’ them so they don’t create anxiety
  • respond in an appropriate way.

If your organisation needs trained mental health first aiders, a certified course lasts two days and will equip employees to use a particular approach. But anyone can attend a half day’s training to gain an overview of common mental health conditions and learn how to respond helpfully.

Practise self-care

Managers should look after themselves too. If someone confides in them, it could be draining or disturbing. Mental health awareness training will educate them about self-care, which is useful for everyone.

Above all, they shouldn’t give themselves a hard time if they don’t notice someone’s distress – many people are great at covering things up.

This is why the new climate of openness around mental health is a good thing – and likely to impact on anyone at work. Make sure your organisation is ready to respond, with well-trained, mental-health aware managers.

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