Empowering Managers: Upskilling in Counselling Is Vital for Supporting Employees’ Mental Health

By Relationships Australia

When you’re leading others, you can expect to provide guidance, build relationships and communicate with your team. But it’s becoming increasingly common for leaders to also play the role of a counsellor. Because when you’re leading others, you’re not just managing projects and tasks – you’re also managing people and their emotions. It’s like stumbling into a counsellor’s chair without even realising it or being equipped to do so.

With the role of managers expanding to include this focus on mental health, it’s important to understand what issues may arise and how you can best support your employees.

More openness around mental health

While mental health issues used to be shrouded in stigma, these days we can talk more openly about what is impacting our mental state, whether it’s depression, anxiety, PTSD, or something else.

According to the 2022 Indicators of a Thriving Workplace Survey, 28% of workers reported that they experienced a mental health condition in the past 12 months, and one in four people reported having a mental health condition.

The same survey found that one in 10 people experienced bullying at work in the past 12 months, and one in 10 experienced discrimination based on gender, age, religion, disability or family responsibilities.

Being a victim of bullying and discrimination not only worsens a person’s mental health; pre-existing mental health problems can also be a risk factor for bullying and discrimination.

A 2021 article in the Annals of Work Exposure and Health found that while workplace bullying is largely due to the organisation, not the individual, subsequent bullying can be due to both organisational deficits and the person on the receiving end having mental health problems.

Employers need to manage psychosocial hazards

The impact of mental health issues on organisations can’t be ignored. The Productivity Commission’s Inquiry into Mental Health in 2020 estimated that mental illness costs the Australian economy around $70 billion per year. The associated cost of disability and premature death due to mental illness is a further $150 billion per year.

Following a recent change to workplace regulations, employers now have an obligation to prioritise employees’ mental health. As of 1 April 2023, employers are legally required under the Work Health and Safety Act to manage psychosocial hazards in the workplace. These might include lack of role clarity, unmanageable workloads, violence and harassment.

This shift brought with it the need for workplaces to take these issues seriously, both from a legal standpoint, and in response to an increased expectation from employees.

Gone are the days when work and personal lives should be kept separate. Whether it’s openly discussing the pressures faced in the workplace or other challenges in their lives, more employees are turning to their managers for support.

While there are still many employees who aren’t comfortable revealing mental health issues at work – 53% of Australian workers would hide a mental or physical health condition they had so that they wouldn’t be judged or discriminated against, according to a YouGov survey in 2021 – it’s still really important for managers to be equipped to deal with any issues that are impacting their staff.

Expectations of leaders and managers

As reported in the Australian Financial Review, employers are increasingly asking their managers and leaders to attend mental health training, due to their roles as ‘unofficial counsellors’.

This type of training, including the Accidental Counsellor professional training we provide, is designed to assist people who aren’t trained counsellors but who often find themselves in a counselling role – as managers are likely to do.

Managers are expected to be attuned to the signs of mental distress among their team members, whether it’s subtle changes in behaviour or performance issues. Increased absenteeism can also be a clue that something’s amiss.

How can leaders support their employees’ mental health?

As the statistics show, not all employees will feel comfortable sharing their mental health challenges with their manager – and that’s their right. But by fostering open communication channels and creating a supportive environment, managers can encourage employees to feel comfortable seeking help and support when they need it.

When employees come to their manager and share what they’re going through, it’s important for managers to feel they’re equipped with the knowledge and resources to effectively address mental health concerns. Providing access to counselling services, implementing flexible work arrangements or offering training on stress management techniques can all support employees.

Our CEO and clinical psychologist, Elisabeth Shaw. says the disclosure will guide how the conversation goes.

“If it is a difficult time, it is good to say, ‘Thanks for sharing with me – given I am your line manager/colleague, what do you need from me?’ They might say they need to adjust their work hours for a period, or might be a little distracted, or need time off. It is also useful to say, ‘I am happy to support you but you should be seeing a qualified professional – I can’t play that role’.”

Elisabeth points out that you might have to say you can’t keep the issue to yourself, but that you respect their confidence and privacy, and together you want to disclose to a select person (or people) in service of getting the right support in place.

“Ensure you don’t pursue a helping role,” she adds. “A person who discloses something might later want their privacy back or might feel nervous they told you. Act naturally and check in just as promised or is appropriate. Don’t actively pursue or invite more confidences.”

A question that’s not easy to ask, or answer, is around suicide risk. Understanding when and if this is appropriate to bring up with an employee, and knowing how to respond safely, is a crucial skill for a leader. During our Accidental Counsellor workshop, we discuss this challenging and important topic, because employers have a duty to maintain a safe work environment for all employees.

If talk of suicide arises, you shouldn’t promise to keep this confidential. Instead, Elisabeth suggests saying, ‘You and I need to get more assistance’. “This puts you on the same page, working in a united way to get help,” she says. “You can say, ‘I can’t keep this to myself because you are too important, and this is too important. However, we can take next steps and still preserve your privacy’.”

Strategies such as ensuring workloads and expectations are manageable and reasonable, checking in regularly with your employees, having open lines of communication and allowing for flexibility can also play a big role in reducing stress in the workplace. Because while workplace yoga and meditation sessions are nice extras to have, ultimately they don’t do much to improve employee mental health.

Ultimately, by prioritising the mental health of their team members, savvy managers can cultivate a culture of empathy, resilience and wellbeing within their organisations, leading to increased satisfaction, productivity and retention among employees.

It’s also important for leaders to look after their own mental health, just as a counsellor would. Hearing other people’s concerns and problems can be mentally and emotionally draining, and may also bring up some of your own issues as well. Maintaining boundaries is key to ensuring you don’t overinvest in another person’s issues, and to keep yourself well.

Elisabeth says it’s very important for leaders to secure some wise counsel. “This might be an internal HR resource or someone external such as a coach or mentor.”

If you feel like you need extra support navigating challenges in your workplace, Relationships Australia NSW also offers a range of services that can help. Get in touch with us today.

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