It’s Time to Talk but it’s also time to Stop, Look & Listen

Sarah Henchoz

It’s Time to Talk but it’s also time to Stop, Look & Listen

Today is Time to Talk day. I am not one who usually needs any encouragement to talk but what I often need to remind myself is that in order to really talk to someone you also need to listen. I have therefore committed that this year I will stop, look and listen more. As a natural problem solver (which is useful given my profession) I am prone to jump in, get to the heart of the issue, solve it and move on. Now that may be exactly what is needed when giving legal advice, but that is not necessarily the best approach when it comes to leadership. A survey published today found that 49% of managers have never had any training on mental health issues, yet 51% have had a staff member disclose a mental health problem. There will be plenty who have had such problems but not disclosed them. This is why as a manager it is important to Stop, Look & Listen.

Stop

In 2018 I became a Mental Health awareness ambassador at A&O. While I still have so much to learn on this topic what I have learned is that rushing in to “solve the problem” is fundamentally flawed. After all, I am poorly equipped to solve any health issue; mental or physical. As many companies are already finding, the starting point on mental health is making it not just acceptable but commonplace to talk about mental health. Stopping to discuss each other’s experiences (because, like physical health, everyone’s mental health will go through ups and downs) and sharing coping strategies no matter how small for dealing with life’s stresses makes a huge difference in breaking down barriers and removing the stigma often associated with mental health. It takes bravery to stand up and talk about how you are feeling, but those who have done so have paved the way for others to feel safer in talking about their own experiences. They have also shown that having episodes of poor mental health is not a barrier to career success. The green ribbon and social media campaign #endthestigma continues to do fantastic work in this respect.

Look

I’ve also learned that the role of a leader is not to “fix” the issue and, indeed, that is not what someone who has mental health issues is looking for from their colleagues or, indeed, their manager. However, there is a hugely important part to play in looking, observing people in your team, being proactive in identifying when someone may not be themselves and where extra support and help may be required. Being proactive may help prevent a bigger issue in the future. Many firms have introduced mental health first aiders in the same way as you would for physical first aiders – colleagues who are trained to help identify, support and guide those who need some additional help. I think we will see initiatives such as these increasing over the coming year as companies continue to seek to create supportive and inclusive cultures. In November, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health and Social Care published Voluntary Reporting on Disability, Mental Health and Wellbeing, a framework to support employers to report voluntarily on disability, mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. While aimed at employers with over 250 employees, it is by no means restricted to larger employers. The aim is to drive greater transparency with regards of steps employers are taking to support the mental health and wellbeing of their employees. This is clearly consistent with the increased focus on driving accountability and reporting across the diversity spectrum.

Listen

“You never learn anything when you are the one talking” is one of the best bits of advice I have ever received. There is always a fear when discussing mental health issues that you will say the wrong thing, intrude too much into someone’s private life or make matters worse. However, it is clear from the sessions I have attended and the conversations I have had that not saying anything is worse. There are of course many fantastic organisations providing excellent services for those who need them, but actually just having regular dialogue with colleagues about what’s going well or not so well and how you might be able to help goes a really long way. This isn’t about the legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments for those who have mental health-related disabilities, it is about increasing understanding and creating a culture where those who are suffering from poor mental health can continue to thrive and succeed in the workplace. What a firm does in this respect is one of the key factors taken into account by potential new recruits. As companies continue to address culture I think it is a brave employer who ignores the mental health of its workforce.

During the year, I will be blogging on various aspects of mental health for employers, starting with how to deal with an employee who you suspect is experiencing mental health issues. We will also be running a seminar for clients in conjunction with one of our mental health medical experts to explore best practice in this area.

Comments published on Employment Talk do not necessarily reflect the views of Allen & Overy.

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