Seven things I learned from teaching mental health awareness to managers

Any teacher will tell you two things: 1) by far the best way to get to know a subject is to teach it and 2) students have a knack of helping you see your subject from a different perspective. So, here are the top seven things I have learned from a year or so of running mental health awareness courses for managers:

Managers get it

Walking into the first of these courses, I was convinced that getting a group of managers to engage with mental health wasn’t going to be easy. I thought many of them might look on the course as just more HR BS, and that most of them, particularly the men, would probably rather be tasered than talk about things like stress, anxiety and depression. I couldn’t have been more wrong.  In short, these managers showed they got it. They understood that mental health is part of the human condition and that knowing about it and being able to talk about it was only going help them do a better job of managing their staff.

The stats are about right

Having worked in the sector, I have always been just a little wary of the numbers quoted by not-for-profits. So, when I first read the statistic that one in six people in the workplace are experiencing a mental health issue, I was bit sceptical. Was that really true? Were one in six of my colleagues experiencing a problem right now? It didn’t quite stack up with my experience. Now, having run a large number of these courses I can say the figure is about right. On practically every course, two or three out of the dozen attendees have admitted to experiencing some form of mental health issue. 

Suicide isn’t painless

The number the managers coming on these courses found the most shocking wasn’t the one-in-six stat, but a much larger one: 5,821. That’s the number of suicides in the UK in 2017.  When I put it on the screen, there is always a collective intake of breath. And in turn, I was surprised by the number of attendees whose lives have been touched by suicide.  On nearly every course there have been two or three people who have been affected by the loss of a relative, friend or work colleague. Their stories highlighted how much pain and trauma a suicide leaves behind, even in the workplace.  So, the lesson is that we still have a way to go in talking more openly about suicide and being ready to step in to prevent it.

Stories are everything

When my colleagues and I were developing our course we were determined to keep the amount of lecturing and the number of slides to a minimum. We knew that this was a subject where discussion had to be the main route to learning. We certainly got that right. But we underestimated the significance of lived experience. By far the most important element of the course were the “this is how it was for me” moments –people telling their stories of mental health at first hand. Which leads me to number five….

People are more courageous than you think

One of the things that really surprised and impressed me was how willing attendees were to speak about their own experiences of mental health. On nearly every course, two or three people stepped forward and talked openly about their mental health issues – and this in front of a dozen or so of their peers. Their courage has been humbling and uplifting in equal measure. And what it tells me is that this is a mountain we really can move – we can change attitudes and we can normalise being open about mental health in the workplace.

All we have to do is not screw it up!

In these these courses, when I ask the question – Do you agree with this statement: “In general, work is good for your mental health”? – the answer is almost always a resounding “Yes!” And people can very rapidly reel off why it is good for you: it’s the challenge, the sense of purpose, the feeling of achievement, the learning, the belonging, the camaraderie….. It doesn’t take them long to fill a flip chart. So, good mental health at work, is to a large part, about not screwing it up.

Bowls of fruit aren’t enough

I am really impressed how far we have come in the last 10 years. Sometimes I still have to pinch myself to believe the extent to which major companies are investing in mental health training. It’s a giant leap in the right direction.  But what I have learned from listening to these managers is that training on its own, and some of the other easy to do wellbeing tactics, like bowls of fruit in the workplace and mindfulness sessions, aren’t quite enough. So, I am looking forward to the next phase of this journey, where we get serious about the harder to do stuff. Like how we structure work, manage relationships and get the level of challenge right, so that everyone has a great day at work, everyday. 

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