Monika has recently co-authored a book on “Success Simplified” with Stephen Covey.
Recently there has been bigger mindfulness of the impact of mental health problems on individuals and the workplace. The economic impact is realized through direct treatment costs to the health care system as well as indirect costs, such as reduced or lost productivity due to absenteeism.
Mental health problems account for about half of employee absences due to illness each year in Canada for example, 3.5 days lost per employee per year are due to mental health problems. It is estimated that mental illness results in 35 million lost workdays each year in Canada.’
Employees living with mental health problems may feel and behave out of character at home and work. There may be feelings of things not quite right, yet they are unable to pinpoint the problem. Their co-workers, supervisors and family members may start to notice a change in mood and behaviour.
Signs that indicate an employee or colleague may have a mental health problem are:
· Regular late arrivals or often absent
· Lack of teamwork or an over-all disinterest in working with co-workers
· Lower output
· Increased mishaps or safety problems
· Numerous complaints of exhaustion or unexplained pains
· Difficulty focusing, not being decisive or forgetting things
· Making apologies for missed deadlines or poor work
· Decreased attention or involvement in one’s work
· Working excessive overtime over a prolonged period
· Expressions of outlandish or grand ideas
· Displays of irritation or pointing the finger at others
It is important to highlight that people behaving in these ways may be just having a bad day or week or dealing with a difficult situation in their personal life that may be temporary. A pattern that continues for a more extended period, however, may point to an underlying mental health problem.
Stress is a consistent part of life and work, and it can be positive or negative. Unwarranted hurtful stress through life events, including workplace issues, can contribute to mental health problems. Work itself can be expected to generate a certain level of stress associated with meeting deadlines and expectations, the need to feel valued and the loss of control over one’s time.
There are many causes of workplace stress. One key to effective stress management is maintaining awareness of the potential stressors and readiness to address them before they become problematic. Some of the most critical sources of work-related stress are listed below.
· Poor communication
· Incongruity in work demands, individual ability and amount of control over working practices
· Work overload and work underload
· Shift work and/or night work
· Segregation, isolation and/or unstructured support for home workers
· Short-term contracts
· Role conflict, uncertainty and changing roles
· The uneven weight assigned by management to consultation, support and control
· Lack of training for managers in communication and people skills
· Uncomfortable physical workspace
· Introduction of new technology, if not planned and gradual
· The culture of presenteeism, in which an employee feels the need to be seen working at all times
· Work-life imbalance
· Home-based stresses that support or feed off of work-based stresses
Managing workplace stress can include training for employees to raise awareness about the causes and effects of stress, as well as to learn skills for coping with stress at work and in their personal lives.
Research has shown that some job stressors are worse than others, such as jobs that continuously involve imposed deadlines over an extended period and give individuals little control over the day-to-day organization of their work (high demand/low control). These jobs can lead to more than double the rate of heart and cardiovascular problems. As well as significantly higher rates of anxiety, depression and fell of being undermined. High demand/low control jobs also lead to substantially higher alcohol, prescription and over-the-counter drug use, and a significantly higher susceptibility to infectious diseases.’
Jobs that require high physical or mental effort but offer little in the way of compensation, status, financial gain or career enhancement (high effort/low reward) also affect employee stress levels. These jobs are associated with triple the rate of cardiovascular problems and significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety and conflict-related problems
The health of workers does not have to be compromised by stress. Changes to the workplace can make for a more mentally healthy workplace, especially when employees feel adequately rewarded and have greater control of their work.
Mental health problems can seriously affect someone’s ability to work. If left untreated and the mental health problem worsens, the employee may need to stop working altogether.
On the other hand, employees may try to continue to work knowing that they are not performing to their usual standards. If mental health problems are acknowledged early, and proper treatment is obtained, most people can quickly return to their regular performance at work, and much unhappiness and suffering can be avoided.
I am finding as I train, coach and mediate that the issues in the workplace are becoming more complex. In recent events, some high profile individuals have come to the attention of the media as a result of their actions. We are finding mental health issues are more of a concern and the means to address them is less easy. In this article, I am attempting to share some tools you may want to engage in when speaking with your colleagues or employees.
Communication is not just saying words; it is creating correct understanding. Active listening is an essential skill in the communication process. Dr Marius Pickering from the University of Maine identifies four characteristics of empathetic listening.
The desire to be “other-directed”, rather than to project one’s feelings and ideas onto the other person.
The desire to be non-defensive, rather than to protect themselves. When they are being protected, it is difficult to focus on another person.
The desire to imagine the experience, roles and perspective of the other person, rather than assuming they are the same as one’s own.
The desire to listen as the receiver, not be critical; and
The desire to understand the other person rather than to reach either agreement from or change in that person.
Interestingly, the average person speaks at a rate of 100-150 words per minute. An auctioneer, on the other hand, does a rapid-fire 250 to 400 words per minute. Those, however, are exceptions. When you are just having a chat, you will usually speak at a rate of 110 to 130 words per minute. Most listeners understand as many as 600 words per minute, which is why I talk so quickly sometimes. That means everybody is a good listener. Not! We can lose our focus for many reasons: we do not understand what is being said; we do not agree with the speaker; we are bored or lack interest, or we want to give answers.
The person sharing the information becomes aware they are not being listened to and begin to feel more unheard and rejected. To really listen, we have to practice active listening. Yes, it is a skill that may be learned and mastered. When dealing with stressful situations in the workplace, you need to be a supportive listener by showing warmth and caring in the way we listen.
Here are some pointers to assist us in becoming better listeners.
Don’t interrupt. Silence is a powerful tool. Being quiet and let the other person think. You cannot listen and talk at the same time.
Keep an open mind. Do not judge or jump to conclusions. Think before you respond.
Make listening to a priority. Stay focused. Stay in the present. Eliminate distractions, like emails and cell phones.
Show respect for the person and their feelings. Even if you disagree.
Avoid giving advise, even when asked. Offer options and suggestions. Allow them to discover their best answer.
Learn the art of asking good questions: open-ended (How…? What…? Could…? Would…?). Alternatively, closed-ended (Is? Are? Do? Did?)
Listen with empathy. Try putting yourself in their shoes to try and understand their point of view.
Use attending behaviours to let the person know you are listening, like “mmmm,” “uh-huh,” or “I see”.
Watch non-verbal behaviour. Clarify to ensure you are reading the non-verbal behaviour correctly. Keep an open body posture, sit down if possible and try to sit beside the person rather than facing them. Maintain eye contact, if culturally appropriate but do not stare.
Checking to understand. Make sure you inquiry to clarify what you think you heard and to ensure you comprehend. Paraphrasing in your own words. Summarizing to ensure you have received the correct message, focus and understanding.
Providing feedback. Give open, honest feedback. Again checking for understanding.
At the end of the conversation, you should agree with the person what will happen next and who will take action. If after the discussion, you feel distressed, you should find someone to talk to for support and advice, while respecting the person’s privacy. If your expectations of the discussion are not met, be aware that your actions may still make a difference, e.g. the person may speak to someone else about their problem.