Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Training Managers for Mental Health Conversations

Last week I visited a new coffee place in the city. As I walked in, there was nobody behind the till. A young man in his twenties was making coffees for two business men and told me he'd be with me as soon as possible. 

Then suddenly another employee appeared from the kitchen. 

Her eyes red from crying. 
Desperately biting her lip in an attempt to keep a straight face.

She jumped behind the till and asked me for my coffee order without making eye-contact.   

I asked her if she was OK. 
She said she was fine. 

I said I had trouble believing her. 
She said she was just trying to keep it together.

I asked her if there was anything I could do for her. 
She said she just wanted to get some air.

So after her young male colleague agreed to take over, we stepped outside together. She told me she didn't want anybody to find out she was suffering from anxiety. This job was very important to her. When I asked her why she didn't talk to her manager, she reassured me that that was absolutely no option. She didn't want to be labeled as 'crazy'... 

When I later walked back to my car with a cold coffee and a heavy heart, I couldn't help but feeling how terribly unfortunate it is that so little time and resources are dedicated to assist managers to work more effectively with people with mental illnesses. 

Research shows that up to 50% (!) of employees with a mental health problem will not disclose it to their manager. Yet, to manage efficiently, managers need to know what is going on their teams. They also need to know how to handle a mental health conversation without making things worse. 
Surprisingly very few managers have the knowledge and skills to know how to deal with mental health issues. In fact, fewer than 20% of Managers in Western Australia have had mental health training. 
I believe all Managers require training (and practice experience) to work effectively with mentally ill people. And such training must cover three main areas: 

- Understanding mental illness;
- Identifying those with mental illness who may be in crisis and;
- Communicating and interacting with them in a non-violent way to reduce their distress and de-escalate them.
But most importantly, the training needs to involve opportunities to develop and practice communication and de-escalation skills.
Ultimately employers and business owners need to communicate and educate constantly on mental health and well being and look for ways to open up the discussion and normalize such conversations. It is only by doing this they will see measurable improvements in health and happiness at work. 

I can only hope this culture of wellness is just a few coffees away for the girl in the coffee shop...