How can you support staff affected by mental health issues?

Pardon the Interruption

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Wellbeing has risen up the agenda during the pandemic, but what are the dos and don’ts of supporting employees, leaders and perhaps even counterparties in a funding discussion who are struggling? 
 
Mental health charity Mind says that one in four people are suffering from poor mental health each year, with those who identify as LGBTQ+, black people and young women most at risk. If not addressed, mental health problems can spiral out of control and have a human cost. More than one in 20 people attempt suicide at some point in their lives, according to the Samaritans. 
 
But there is also a financial fallout from poor health. Analysis by consulting firm Deloitte found that poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45bn a year – a staggering sum. The analysis also found that workplace interventions can provide an average return of £5 for every £1 spent, through reduced absences, less presenteeism and lower staff turnover; the highest return on investment can be achieved through early interventions like cultural change and education. 
 

Tips for greater resilience 

 
Giving the Pensions Management Institute’s 2020 annual lecture, John Binns, vice trustee chair of charity Mind and a former Deloitte partner, talked of his own experiences with burnout and discussed the warning signs that someone is fragile, such as difficulty concentrating and making decisions, social withdrawal or increased irritation. 
 
Now a trained cognitive behavioural therapy coach, he gave practical tips to pension professionals – many of whom work in high pressure jobs – advising them to avoid “black and white thinking” and “catastrophising” potential outcomes, instead “giving thoughts their proper proportion” by regularly querying their validity and usefulness and asking if there are not in fact other possible outcomes. 
 
Binns advised team leaders to reach out to quieter people in one-to-one calls to understand how they are as video calls tend to “amplify the louder voices”; and he told those who are struggling to try to open up to someone at work – noting that the response is usually better than what was expected. 
 

What employers should and shouldn’t do 

 
But not every company is equally understanding. Binns acknowledged that while there has been progress among employers, there is still a long way to go. 

“There are senior people in organisations who don’t get this,” he said. 

He advised people who are in a difficult situation and faced with an unsupportive employer “not to take life changing decisions” such as handing in their notice, but to “try to recognise that there is an interim place very often". 
 
A common mistake for employers is that they expect employees who have been on leave due to their mental health to resume where they left off when they return. This is “almost guaranteed to fail”, he noted, although overly cocooning someone can be equally problematic. 
 
“A good return is a [gradual] return,” he said, with responsibilities being picked up one by one; there can also be a change of role, but he stressed the need for “a discussion on what would work now”. 
 
What about leaders who are struggling? He said they should avoid the notion that they must be “bulletproof” and should open up to their teams. They might discover that having discussed their issues strengthens the bond with the team, who are often supportive, he believes. 
 

TPR: Leaders must model support 

 
One employer that is keen on people being open about mental health and receiving support when they have difficulties is the Pensions Regulator. Speaking at the PMI webinar, its executive director of strategy and risk Jo Hill stressed the importance for leaders to model support for those with mental health problems.  
 
Hill co-chairs the regulator’s diversity and inclusion committee with executive director of regulatory policy, analysis and advice David Fairs. One strand of the D&I programme focuses on mental health. Organisation-wide awareness and training for managers is key, she said: “It’s important to train line management on how to catch that ball when it’s thrown at you." 
 
For employers who want to start their journey on this, she pointed to the toolkits available from charity Business in the Community and the Department for Health on how to deal with employees suffering from poor mental health. 
 

TPR explores different dimensions of mental health 

 
However, the issue goes beyond TPR’s own staff. “As a regulator we have to think about the community we’re here to serve,” said Hill, namely the millions of pension savers. 

People with mental health problems are three-and-a-half times more likely to be in debt, she noted. “What does that mean in the long term for people with mental health conditions?” she said, adding that TPR is at the very beginning of thinking about this. 
 
Could the question around mental health stretch even further – into TPR’s negotiations? 

A listener asked how the regulator can engage robustly to fulfil its regulatory duties while still supporting the mental health of other parties around the table. The question might have resonated with some in the industry who previously felt ambushed by an assertive style among the case management team of a regulator whose mantra is not only to be clearer and quicker, but also tougher. 
 
Hill believes TPR’s internal culture would make its people “more alive” to where issues might arise and equipped to think about its approach, but added that “it’s something I’d like to take away and think about a bit more”. 
 

Has your approach to mental health issues changed during the pandemic?