THE BLOG

Time for Bosses to Open Up on Mental Health

05/04/2013 18:29 BST | Updated 05/06/2013 10:12 BST

From the end of April, employers will no longer be able to, legally, remove company directors who have mental health problems.

The success of the Mental Health Discrimination Bill is part of an important shift in attitudes towards mental illness in the UK: that people who've had mental health problems shouldn't be barred from taking on responsibilities (as MPs and on juries, as well as leading private and public sector organisations). The Bill has been an important step forward in getting the issue of mental health onto the workplace table. Unfortunately, there will always be levels of prejudice and discrimination against people with mental health problems, mostly unseen and untraceable. However, introducing legislation at least addresses the legally anomaly of mental health discrimination, and starts a dialogue about mental health and work. This dialogue raises questions for all of us about the impact of mental health problems at work, how they can be addressed and how employees can be supported in order to maintain their relationships and performance at work.

For HR professionals, the legislation may seem a technical formality. However, one area of focus is the issue of the mental health of senior managers and directors; and how do organisations look after their senior staff. Essentially, at present, the looking-after is done through financial rewards, healthcare, and maybe an annual medical.

Research has consistently indicated that money, in itself, isn't necessarily the solution for compensating people who are expected to shoulder high levels of responsibility and pressure, make the key decisions and be entirely consistent in their level of performance. The majority of senior staff give huge amounts of time, effort, commitment and loyalty. They are expected to give extra and therefore maybe they need to be offered extra in terms of support and not just cash.

What we observe through our work in organisations is that most people who hold senior posts are relatively insightful when it comes to their own performance and behaviour. Their role is important enough to them to ensure they're self-aware and keen to act when there are any problems. They will generally reach out and look for the response that's needed whether it's a lifestyle change, therapy or medication. In these instances senior staff are perfectly able to manage mental health challenges and continue to be effective in their working role. Problems only come when these staff don't know or see what's happening to themselves, whether through sudden trauma or problems that develop slowly and insidiously over a long period. Sometimes the impact of high stress and managing high risk is to withdraw, ignore feedback and lose insight. This is when self-awareness reduces and our risk of developing mental health problems increases. Awareness is what matters.

The other critical influence over mental health issues, and one where HR has more of an obvious role, is the working environment. A workplace where there are continuous demands, ever increasing targets, and the pressure for ever-greater corporate achievements, needs to be matched in terms of psychological support.

If this matching of psychological input and corporate output doesn't happen, there is a risk of senior managers feeling trapped, stuck and caught in an increasingly pressurised cycle of constant demands where there is no way out. Decision-making is affected, there is loss of patience, empathy, reflection, insight and strategic thought. All the characteristics that are essential and valued in senior staff. If these changes are not recognised, the situation can deteriorate and lead to depression, anxiety, burn-out and other mental health problems which impact personal and professional lives.

The issue of care and support for senior staff is of crucial importance to HR, an issue made even more complicated as these staff are often seen as different from the rest of staff. It's still a feature of modern organisations that people in high-level positions are somehow viewed as superhuman, with different capabilities and needs from the norm. In reality, the human heart, soul, mind and brain need nourishing in all of us, just as the body does.

Leaders who are able to talk about their strengths and vulnerabilities, articulate and demonstrate a positive balanced message to followers and staff are more likely to listen to feedback and develop insight. But for this to happen there needs to be a culture of support and understanding within an organisation. For example, in our firm, Validium, we recognised that senior staff within our customers were not regular users of the traditional employee support services, and hence we developed a tailored programme of services for Directors and senior staff. Twice yearly, directors are offered confidential sessions with an experienced clinician to discuss the impact of work on their lives and to assess their level of resilience. Feedback from these sessions demonstrate that the most useful aspect of the session, reported by senior managers, is the opportunity to offload in a confidential setting.

All of us working in hr need to review our prejudices at times, our patterns of thinking and our assumptions. We have to be capable of judging each case on its merits. There are always going to be some people who are clearly unable to work for a period of time because of a mental health issue, and some who can carry on and manage their situation. The new legislation is more then a technicality because it makes organisations and individuals think about what mental health is and what it means to take on responsibility whether as a juror, an MP or director. The ideal will be that talented people who felt barred from working at senior levels will now feel able to return to work and make their contribution, and generally that mental health will be discussed in a positive, realistic way and not in hushed tones and with suspicion. And in future, it won't be just media celebrities like Robbie Williams, Ruby Wax or Rosie Boycott, who are willing to talk about their mental health stories, but leaders of organisations.