You don’t need to be an expert: practical ways to help employees with mental health issues

We know that globally one in five people (20%) suffer some sort of mental health problems at least sometime during their life. Therefore it is likely in most families and work groups that there will be people with mental health issues. In working with many leaders and managers one of the major concerns that is increasingly verbalized is how to best to approach and help people in their team who are suffering some sort of mental health issue. Clearly and thankfully awareness as to the prevalence and seriousness of mental health as a workplace issue has risen enormously in the last 10 years, but still many feel ill-equipped to know where to start of what to do if someone they work with is showing signs of poor mental health.

Recently I listen to Jim Al Khalili, on one of my very favourite podcast series A Life Scientific, from BBC Radio 4 talk with Peter Fonagy on his life, career and contribution to mental health care.  Like many people who make outstanding contributions to our lives and well-being, Peter has suffered very much in his early life. Indeed, he says that it only through having experienced trauma which personally caused him significant mental health problems, that he was able to make such a contribution.

Other than this being a fascinating insight into one person’s story, what resonated with me was something that Peter said which has great relevance to all leaders and managers in organizations.

Peter Fonagy and colleagues, through soundly based scientific approaches and randomized control experiments, found that there was actually something profoundly simply that can make a material and measurable improvement for people suffering many types of mental illness.  In essence he found that giving people a language and a way to express their feelings / desires / anxieties can help them actually understand their own feelings and thoughts. In his words it allows people to ‘mentalize’ their thoughts and feelings and this leads to better understanding of self.  For example, if you can develop a second order representation of your thoughts and feelings, then rather than just feeling angry (or sad or confused etc) but can acknowledge the feeling (I am angry….) – then this gives you a sense of emotional control. He proved this ability to “mentalize” was a core function which enable people to operate in the social world.

He proved that this simple approach (he calls “mentalization”) is an absolute cornerstone of mental health and taps into our deep human need to be understood.

Peter went on to say, that although this theory has been developed into a coherent methodology of mentalization based therapy (MBT) and taught to, and used by, many thousands of professional psychologists / psychotherapists around the world as a vital part of treatment for a whole range of mental health problems he strongly advocates that we can all help each other to a greater extent than we imagine. This does not have to be delivered by trained therapists.

His most significant point is that,

“It is the community around the individual that actually makes the difference to mental health”.

Given the importance of work and the proportion of our lives we spend in our workplace communities then what Peter says has huge relevance to us all – and especially those of us who have people’s well-being in our hands.

So, here are some ways that you can make a difference to those who are in your team or with whom you work, who may be suffering some form of mental anguish

  • Provide an opportunity to give them your undivided attention
  • Listen carefully to them
  • Begin from a stance of acceptance
  • Inquire gently, seeking to understand
  • Validate their view of the world
  • Work to create a picture of their mind in your mind
  • Make them feel that you understand their perspective (even if you may not agree with it) –this builds a platform where they feel you understand them and from which you can influence. This involves you sharing the picture you have created of their situation, checking it with them, refining it with them and this gives them a clearer picture for themselves which they can take and internalize.
  • It is highly likely that they have not had a clear picture of their internal state before, and this is a positive position which they (and you or others) can work from.
  • In addition, from here you can help them do the same for other people including those that they work with – creating more pictures and broadening their understanding
  • Importantly, you must withhold judgement, be directive or leap to problem-solving

Do not expect quick results, and it is not up to you alone. However, the evidence is that if you, as part of the community surrounding your workmate, is aware and can institute some of these first simple steps that you will be making a positive difference, and demonstrate that you can indeed see the world through their eyes.

Jill Tideman

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