“Think about your best boss ever and your worst boss ever; what impact did they have on the way you thougaht, felt and behaved?”.

The main reason I do what I do is to reduce waste.

Not the waste that we deal with every day as consumers, but waste of life.

On reflection, I wasted three or four years of my life; my career, my family and my ability to contribute to society seemed wasted because of the journey that my mental health (and my ignorance of it) led me down.

Having been diagnosed with severe depression, post-traumatic stress and an anxiety disorder, I wrote myself off. I had been out of the Army for a couple of years and was then working for another government agency.

The reason that I trained as a Mental Health First Aid Instructor is that I know that if the organisation that I was working for had had a MHFA programme in place (asking a lot 7 years ago), my path would have been quite different and I expect that I would still be there and thriving.

However, after receiving what seemed like such a damning diagnosis, I reached the conclusion that my career was over pretty much before it began. I can’t recall what the official response was – the combination of a brain injury and depression means that my memory of that period is pretty patchy – but I embarked upon a journey of self-induced discrimination.

I convinced myself that I would never again clear the demands of the vetting process and resigned, leading to a period of aimless negativity.

I can’t be sure but it’s possible that if I hadn’t self-destructed, a manager in the organisation may have helped me on my way.

The sad reality is that many managers think that because one of their team has struggled with their mental health in the past, they will always do so or that they will always be a weak link in the team.

The reality is starkly different; we know that recovery is not only possible but likely, with many people coming back to more aware of how to manage their mental health and better equipped than they were before.

We also know that early intervention is likely to significantly enhance the chance of a rapid and sustained recovery from poor mental health; the right conversation with the right person at the right time can have a hugely positive impact. In many cases practical, amateur, human support – with no need for specialist knowledge or skills – can prevent the need for clinical help further down the road.

No manager wants to write off members of their team but – and the evidence backs this up – a combination of (understandable) fear, lack of knowledge and unclear direction from the organisation often leads to inaction.

Quite quickly, a situation that could have been solved with some basic knowledge, appropriate tools and the requisite permission becomes a “case” that needs to be “managed” by HR or Occupational Health. The individual then becomes part of a process in which they become lost, possibly to themselves and their line manager.

So it is no surprise that managers might well see mental health as a threat – with 1 in 4 of the population effected at some stage – ominously looming over us as a matter of when not if, rather than the opportunity it can afford in inspiring, motivating and sustaining a team; leading them.

Think back to the question at the start of this article and you will realise that managers will impact the mental health of their team; it may be positive, it may be negative but the likelihood is that without any consideration or training, it is likely to be inconsistent.

The real shame is that so much talent goes to waste because managers don’t know how to engage with the understandably daunting topic of mental health.

“I’m not a therapist and I’m not an HR specialist so I shouldn’t get involved” is a common response. Nobody expects managers to be experts, but they are well-placed to do two things that are likely to contribute to positive mental health, and ultimately contribute to the performance of their team:

  1. Act proactively – by using simple but effective frameworks like the HSE Stress Risk Assessment, managers can understand where stress (the primary pre-cursor to poor mental health) is likely to occur and manage it like they would manage any other business risk (but with added sensitivity). This is particularly pertinent now as lockdown has significantly changed how each factor shows up.
  2. Being responsive when poor mental health does show up – by familiarising themselves with comprehensive yet accessible resources such as MHFA England’s Line Managers’ Resource. This excellent manual covers all the topics – such as how to communicate with a colleague who may be on sick leave due to poor mental health – that you know you should be comfortable with but probably aren’t and are to afraid to ask HR about.

This is an opportunity for us to grow as leaders; to engage with some difficult concepts with humility and courage to make a real difference to our teams by taking the time to educate ourselves, understanding what might be challenging our people before committing to supporting them through it.