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Mind control: Letting humour and a café latte counter stress

8 Mins

Mental health is defined by the World Health Organisation as “a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can counter stress in normal life situations, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to the community.”

When worded this way, who can deny its importance? A lot of companies, it seems, given how we still find the UK’s response to tackling mental health issues lacking. But with our world increasingly moving towards a 24/7 culture, leaders can ill-afford to take their time crafting strategies that will counter stress.

Hoping to emphasise the need for more support among the SME community, Real Business spoke to Gedanken managing director David Cliff, who spent a portion of his career as a psychiatric social worker dealing with the challenges of mental health.

The good news is, according to Cliff, that a conversation, some appreciation and a café latte – among other factors – can prove efficient ways to boost someone’s mood. 

What is your opinion on the overall UK working environment and its impact on mental health?

An Institute of Directors survey suggested only 14 per cent of its member organisations had a coherent mental health policy. When applied to the country as a whole, there is a huge distance to travel in terms of promoting mental health and wellbeing within the workplace.

The last 20 years or so have seen the importation of American management techniques which, when suffused with the impact of globalisation and cheaper labour overseas, along with domestic economic and austerity measures, have resulted in increasing drive for performance. It has also generated a long hours culture, an impetus on flexible working and the constant need to foster productivity.

The attendant stresses of these processes, combined with individuals working in a technologically advanced world, makes it is easy for people’s mental health needs to fall from the agenda. All too often, I see boards not quite knowing what to do with the grim news that “morale is low”. It is often something that is acknowledged without necessarily anyone having the cognisance as to what to do with that finding.

What do you believe are the benefits of investing in employees’ health and wellbeing?

It is important to invest in employees’ health and wellbeing and help. That often starts with simply being a good employer. Decent wages, a nice environment, a fair system of progression and reward and the avoidance of favouritism or a covert meritocracy can make staff feel they have a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives. This should be in place long before a coherent employee engagement policy.

Indeed, many policies have been brought in to substitute for what is effectively poor management and leadership, poor personnel practices and a general neglect of staff as a valued resource who are truly individual. Oppressive practices that are designed to drive down sickness whilst bringing in fairness will never substitute for areas of enlightened discretion, no matter how many risks that might bring in terms of potential manipulation by some.

Most staff are honest, hard-working and committed. Rather than dealing with the complexity of that, firms adopt a global X–Y perspective of managing staff using policies of sameness rather than uniquely case working each situation. We have to be careful not to consign good staff care to arcane policy documentation and ritualistic procedures.

In what ways do you boost employees’ wellbeing?

I would suggest some basic workplace practices, such as the ones discussed above. Give employees a contract on time that’s fair, value their input and encourage participation. Understand the problems of the double day for people with children or dependents and where possible, help counter stress. Offer behavioural flexibility ensuring that, as long as the job is done to a decent quality and with an eye to customers, there can be multiple ways to get there.

Most of all, a respect on the values of individuality. Our mental wellbeing is brought more under pressure by a sense of lost identity than the rigours of the job itself. We need all of these basics before we consider appraisal systems, effective training and involvement in meeting processes.

How would supporting staff mental health help business in the long-run?

If you break your leg, you can still sit at a desk and work productively – that is, if you are doing office work. But if you’re depressed or anxious, your productivity goes down. This simple difference is not appreciated by many managers.

But then I work with so many managers who have underlying mental health problems themselves. They are depressed, anxious or perhaps have some obsessive-compulsive traits, but are functional nonetheless and continue to tough it out rather than seeking the help they need. Such personal denial offers little hope for a leader seeking to provide a truly flexible service for their staff.

How would you advise SME bosses address staff mental health?

Firstly, let’s abandon the old notions of mental health being some form of moral defect. One in four people are affected by depression and at any point in time one in ten people will have a compulsory admission to psychiatric hospital. Some three per cent of the workforce have psychopathic disorder, while one per cent will be suffering from schizophrenia. Between ten per cent and 25 per cent will be suffering from anxiety and depression.

So the first position for any employer is to recognise that this is real, it’s happening in your firm, it needs a sensible approach and you do indeed need to help counter stress. HR staff trained and orientated in working with mental health is important. Some staff have mental health first aid schemes which can be useful, but these can place pressures on other staff.

The key is to develop arrangements whereby the company can develop the necessary awareness to support mental health difficulties whilst maintaining productive function and outsourcing to requisite expertise where necessary. This ensures people are appropriately supported.

A big old chestnut for me is the weekly call by some companies to a member of staff on the sick with a mental health problem. It is intended to be well-meaning, but ultimately asks the person when they are coming back far earlier than their condition will lend itself to. Such a practice is unproductive.

Read on for Cliff’s thoughts on the most common misconceptions – and the wonders of the café latte

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