It goes without saying that organisations need to provide a culture where health and wellbeing can be discussed openly. Workplaces should also be both physically and psychologically safe, according to HSE health and safety guidelines and the NICE guidelines for mental wellbeing at work. Increasingly however, line managers are expected to take on the responsibility for supporting their colleagues’ physical and mental health and wellbeing. They are also expected to do their day jobs, manage their teams and ensure their own health and wellbeing; a lot for one person to do. In fact, Working To Wellbeing’s research found that one in four (24%) line managers do not believe they have received sufficient training from their employer to best support their colleagues’ overall wellbeing, while 16% do not think they have been equipped with sufficient resources to provide support, rising to 21% of those aged 55-plus.
Recognising different needs
Managing people’s health and wellbeing needs requires an understanding that no two people are the same and as such will need different support. Furthermore, it could be argued that health and wellbeing are on a continuum, and someone could be at any point on that continuum on any given day. For example, a line manager may find themselves supporting two colleagues who suffer from clinical anxiety. While each has the same diagnosis, their symptoms may present very differently at work. One person may find themselves paralysed with fear during team meetings and find it hard to contribute. Another may find it increasingly hard to concentrate as a deadline looms and they start to procrastinate, avoid colleagues and become easily distracted. Not realising that these two colleagues experience their anxiety differently and managing them in the same way will have negative consequences: the individual could go absent, team productivity is affected and pressure is placed on the line manager to perform.
From a vocational rehabilitation perspective there are two ways that line managers can support their colleagues who are experiencing mental or physical ill health or changes to their wellbeing. The first is to help people to remain in work and manage their symptoms successfully. The second is to help people to return to the workplace after a period of ill health. The tools and techniques used in both situations are broadly the same and fall into 5 simple steps:1) notice; 2) ask, 3) listen, 4) signpost and 5) follow up.
Firstly, noticing, means you are paying attention to changes, however small, in your colleagues’ behaviour at work and questioning if any change is related to their health. The next step is to ask ‘are you OK?’ and don’t forget to do that twice (people are terrible at saying ‘I’m fine!’ when they’re not). Remember to listen to their answer. Really listen. What do they need, if anything, from you? Your role is not to problem solve or to wave your magic wand, unless there is a straightforward work-related solution. When supporting someone to remain in, or during their phased return to work, you may need to implement reasonable adjustments to help the person to complete their work activities. These adjustments may have been proposed by occupational health or a vocational rehabilitation consultant or you may have the autonomy to make the adjustments yourself, particularly when supporting someone who hasn’t yet gone off sick. In either case it is important to know if the adjustment is making a difference so regular review is necessary. It is amazing how, sometimes the smallest of changes can make the greatest difference. The change doesn’t always have to be permanent, just implemented when needed. You may also need to signpost to any wellbeing resources within your organisation.
Putting yourself first
When supporting someone to stay at or get back into work, it is really important to know your boundaries. For example, don’t say ‘you can call me anytime’ if you don’t want a call at 3am. Anytime is anytime…right? Make sure expectations are managed well.
Finally, a key part of being able to look after others, is to look after your own needs first. If you are heading towards burnout, struggling with a long-term condition yourself, or suffer from mental ill health, make sure you look after yourself. To quote a metaphor: ‘Put your own oxygen mask on first’. If you’re in good health and are role modelling effective wellbeing practises, then you stand a much better chance at being able to support your colleagues’ mental and physical health.
Dr Julie Denning is chair of the Vocational Rehabilitation Association and MD of Working to Wellbeing