You can’t yoga your way out of bad line management, warn wellbeing experts

Delegates at workplace mental health summit share best practice on how bosses, HR and mental health first aid should work together

Almost every employee is affected in some way by their mental health, recent research has confirmed, which means the issue is receiving greater prominence inside businesses than ever before.

Delegates at the St John Ambulance’s Embedding Mental Health Practices in the Workplace Summit yesterday shared their insights on how HR and managers could embed best practices around mental health in the workplace. Here are four key ideas that emerged: 

Don't just tick boxes

Hiring managers for their technical skills but not considering their empathy or interpersonal ability is risky for businesses, said Dr Justin Varney, former national lead for adult health and wellbeing at Public Health England.

“One of the things I’ve often written and equated is you can’t yoga your way out of bad line management,” Varney said. “Too often we do that and say, ‘Great, let’s have some zumba’, but not talk about how the rotas are killing people.”

He challenged employers and line managers to consider whether they stick to a ‘tickbox’ system of health and wellbeing or whether they could change the way they fill job roles and train line managers to consider mental health.  

Training should be fit for purpose

Charlotte Bray, head of rehabilitation, group protection insurance at Legal and General, said there was a “big gap” between employee and employer perceptions of mental health in the workplace. 

Through the firm’s Not a Red Card campaign, set up in 2017 to encourage people to talk about mental health in the workplace, Bray found line-manager training was a key issue for many organisations. 

As a result, Legal and General developed online training for line managers detailing the best ways to manage workers experiencing mental ill-health. Bray said the firm also put emphasis on reintroducing employees to work when they return from illness. 

Watch out for cognition

Not enough employers consider how mental ill-health affects cognition, said Dr Harry Barry, a GP and author. 

Cognition is the mental process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience and sense, and difficulties with cognition were one of the warning signs employers and HR should be looking for but often miss, said Barry.

However, cognitive decline can be spotted easily by knowing where to look – difficulty processing information, forgetfulness or even mood changes are all signs of impairments in this area. 

“Attendance at work should depend on a worker’s cognitive capacity as well as assessment from a GP or specialist,” said Barry. “Ultimately, attendance should depend on these factors and on the employee’s function at work.”

Employees should be aware when to involve HR

Dr Beverley Flint, clinical psychologist at C&I Wellbeing and Camden & Islington NHS Foundation Trust, said companies needed to train people throughout their organisations to know when to involve HR in the event of a mental health crisis.

Flint, who used to work in HR, said that while some individuals might disclose their mental health difficulties to the function, HR might also be the last to know.

She said she had often heard stories from HR professionals where they only found out after an individual had been dismissed that poor performance had been caused by mental ill health – an outcome Flint described as a “nightmare scenario”.

“What I would love to do is prevent it from coming to that point,” she said. “Your workers need to know their organisation’s policies and procedures around mental health, and they need to involve HR as early as possible.”

Dr Lisa Cohen, who works with Flint, also emphasised HR should be involved when necessary. She said managers and mental health first-aiders are not diagnosticians or clinicians, so other services should be used to assess workers who are in need. 

Cohen added it was important to maintain these boundaries to keep yourself and your staff well and safe.