If we don’t do this, we are not only mistreating the people who work for us – we are also costing our organisations. Research by BITC shows that 70 million days of work are lost each year in the UK due to workers suffering from stress, depression and other mental health conditions.
As this CIPD article highlights, managers need to become more skilled in talking about mental health with their teams – being able to ask pertinent questions when they spot signs of depression or stress, and engaging in meaningful dialogue about it.
Yes, we need to be able to talk about mental health and we must support individuals who are experiencing the distress caused by mental health conditions. But if that’s our focus, it’s truly a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.
As a leader, you do not only need to be skilled at having conversations about stress and depression when you spot the signs that it exists.
You need to be skilled at engaging in meaningful dialogue – full stop. If more leaders did this, it would make it far less likely that their team members would feel stressed and depressed in the first place.
Based on our own research with workforces across both public and private sector organisations, here are three things that leaders aren’t doing that are resulting in stressed, depressed staff:
- Leaders aren’t listening. Leaders especially need to pay attention to the points their teams make over and over again. Individuals aren’t repeating themselves to be awkward or to make their leader’s life difficult – they’re repeating themselves because they haven’t yet been given a meaningful response to their message. Or maybe they haven’t been given a response at all.
- Leaders aren’t giving regular feedback – people are working in a vacuum as a result. Giving constructive feedback can be done in a couple of minutes – it doesn’t always have to be a major discussion in a private room. What matters is that it’s regular, and that leaders catch people doing things right far more often than they catch them doing things wrong. After all, most people are doing a great job the majority of the time – they just aren’t being told that this is the case.
- Leaders aren’t making it clear what’s up for discussion and what isn’t. I find that this problem arises from the emphasis on engaging and empowering people. Leaders are increasingly wary of setting clear boundaries and explaining what is up for discussion and what isn’t. And worst of all, leaders go through the motions of asking their teams for input when the decision has already been made. This simply makes people feel manipulated, frustrated and uncertain. Sure, if there’s scope for people to influence a decision, get their input or pass over the decision-making to them completely. But if you’ve already decided what to do, be clear and direct about this.
There’s no rocket science here and please don’t make the mistake of thinking that these good communication practices are missing only from middle-level leaders downwards. It’s not just ‘them’ – Board-level Directors make these same assertions about their bosses too.
Yes, we need to support people who are suffering the distress of poor mental health. But there are simple steps we can take in our everyday communication practices that will help avoid causing this distress in the first place.