How are you?
It seems an obvious question to ask. And it’s becoming increasingly popular. But half of employees don’t want to talk about their mental health and a third or more will lie to cover it up, so asking ‘how are you?’ may actually be making half of your employees feel uncomfortable. There’s a time and a place for asking employees ‘how are you?’. But when is that and how do you know when you're ready to?
The popular perception is that asking ‘how are you?’ raises awareness of mental health and normalises mental health conversations. Evidence suggests this thinking may be flawed. Business in the Community (2019) found employees are no more likely to talk about their mental health at work now than they were in the past, despite increasing awareness. Shaw Trust (2018) found employer attitudes towards employees with poor mental health have become less tolerant, not more tolerant, suggesting a backlash to increasing awareness. This disappointing and deteriorating picture suggests employees are no more likely to trust their employer than they were previously. This might be because employers' words are not matched by their actions. So, what actions should employers take to build employee confidence, ahead of asking 'how are you?'.
Employers must first ensure everybody in the organisation thinks positively about mental health and about people with mental health issues. Methods employers might implement to achieve this change might include the following:
The Three 'Ps' - Employers may take a ‘three Ps’ approach; policy, procedures and programme. Organisations must write and implement a mental health policy. They must develop a comprehensive array of procedures that support workplace mental health. And they must design and deliver a programme of communication and activity to ensure, above all else, attitudes and behaviours are aligned with mental health aspirations.
Positive case - The positive case for supporting mental health must lay at the heart of such communications. All employees - and especially those who do not have mental health issues - must be convinced of the case for supporting those that do. Consider this issue like trying to trade on goodwill. If no effort has been put into creating goodwill, you can't expect to find much of it. Shaw Trust (2018) found half of employers would prefer not to hire somebody with mental health issues and a third of senior managers would not want to work with somebody who has poor mental health. Telling employees that it’s okay to speak out when such a high proportion of colleagues may hold prejudicial attitudes is asking for trouble. Employers run the risk of making the mental health of employees worse, not better, if they ask employees to speak out about their mental health before doing the necessary groundwork.
Lead by example - The ‘three Ps’ and making the case for mental health provides a starting point. These initiatives may start to shape the culture of the organisation. But the culture will develop based on how it is cultivated. Leaders must cultivate the right culture by setting an example. Leaders must talk of their own mental health and how they have managed their own issues. They must treat colleagues who have poor mental health with caring, compassion and kindness (these are the ‘three Cs’ of workplace mental health). Leaders must also publicly recognise those employees who speak out about their mental health, holding them out as exemplars. Through their own actions, leaders can shape the culture, helping it become pro-mental health and embedding it in the organisation.
The ‘three Ps’ approach, making the case for mental health and leading by example are just three of the many initiatives employers must implement before asking employees to speak out about their mental health. Like most management challenges, proper preparation is the key to achieving the right result.
There’s an easy way to assess whether your organisation is ready to ask the ‘how are you?’ question. Simply consider your physical health and safety management system. If your mental health management system isn’t as comprehensive, you’re probably not ready. You probably haven’t done sufficient groundwork, in advance of asking your employees to speak out about their mental health. On the other hand, if it is as comprehensive, you’ll be well on your way to ensuring your employees are well supported. You’ll be on your way to creating the right conditions, so when employees do speak out about their mental health, they’ll have a positive experience that will hopefully improve their mental health and wellbeing, as well as their performance at work.