Do you see what I see?

By Director James Freemantle

People Measures Director James Freemantle

On this, World Mental Health Day, the team at People Measures acknowledges those who care about friends, loved ones and colleagues experiencing mental illness.

When I was a TV presenter and producer I went to my boss of eight years and confided that I was suffering from depression, had been since my early twenties and wanted to make a TV program aimed at illuminating recovery options for people experiencing the illness. His response was that the only way a project like that would rate would be if I killed myself at the end! (What a climax! Imagine the marketing opportunities. There’s a saying in television - if it bleeds, it leads - and it’s what he lived by.) So I resigned, made the film and won ‘Runner-up Best Documentary’ in the Hope Awards for mental health. But his response cost me my TV career and considerable decline in my wellbeing and that of my family.

There are two important areas for employers and managers to address when dealing with staff who are struggling with their mental health.

As leaders we have an obligation to demonstrate and encourage healthy lifestyle choices and this should be positive and rewarding for ourselves and our teams. Through role-modelling, we can help staff to find balance in their lives. If we role-model super-human round-the-clock service to our businesses, we’re inevitably undermining the health of our workforces. Those who work for us look for our lead on what’s the right amount of homelife and recreation to sacrifice for the job!

As well, we need to be ready to act when we witness a staff member who’s struggling. Ben’s been turning up late, he seems withdrawn and he’s stopped exercising at lunchtime. So I’ll suggest we go for a walk or a coffee and have a chat. I’ll ask him how he’s going, what he’s working on, whether he needs a change in direction or help with anything. Usually that will be enough to open a conversation and I can offer support in a way that Ben determines might be useful to him. We ask a lot from our employees. To have them bring their best selves to work it’s essential that we’re supportive when they have problems. And speaking from my own experience, as soon as I started to talk about my challenges, I found I wasn’t alone and felt a weight lift off my shoulders. Typically, we spend more time with colleagues than we do with our families and friends and, for every person living with mental illness, there will be a circle of work mates who are concerned, who want to help and perhaps need some guidance.

With one in five workers in Australia currently experiencing a mental health condition, it’s likely a member of your team is going through a tough time. Here are a few changes in behaviour to look out for:

  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions

  • Decreased productivity

  • Often away or late

  • Missing deadlines

  • Generally unhappy or constantly tired, irritable or run down.

Managers can support someone with challenges such as anxiety or depression. You can:

  • Listen and try not to judge or ‘fix things’. By listening, you’re letting them know that you care and that their feelings are important

  • Let them know they’re not alone and that you and colleagues care about their wellbeing

  • Allow time and space for them to accept the need for help. Offer information on where to get help – perhaps SANE Australia, Beyond Blue or your employment assistance program. Ask if they have a good GP. You might establish a strategy to help them seek help. Maybe they can arrive late one morning each week so they can visit a counsellor or doctor. It’s important they keep coming to work as this will form part of their plan to find work-life balance

  • Be honest about why you’re worried and if necessary, address the fact that their work is suffering. It’s better to have an honest discussion about this within a supportive setting

  • Encourage them to look after themselves by offering general advice – to eat well, cut down on alcohol, to exercise and get enough sleep. Go for a walk or run with them if that’s your style

  • Don’t be insistent on self-help activities. If they are really struggling, it could be difficult to muster the energy to act. General support and a walk at lunchtime will go a long way to strengthening trust and wellbeing

  • Encourage them to talk to people close to them about how they’re feeling.

  • Finish the conversation with something like: ‘I know you’re not feeling great now, but with the right support, you can get through this’.

And a few tips for you:

  • Try not to judge the staff member or to become frustrated. You might need to talk to HR or get in touch with your EAP provider to gain support whilst ensuring that you maintain the staff member’s privacy (see Privacy Act 1988)

  • ·Gather information so you have a better understanding about your staff member’s illness

  • Unless you’re a mental health professional don’t offer specific advice

  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep. If you believe your staff member is at genuine risk of harming themselves or somebody else, you need to seek immediate help, even if they ask you not to.

Of course, those of us managing staff are not immune to mental health issues of our own. It’s important to care for our own wellbeing so we’re able to perform well and to practise strong leadership. Heavy workloads can take their toll. Burnout is a very real phenomenon, along with anxiety and depression. We need to nurture our bodies with exercise, sleep and nutrition; and feed our emotional, spiritual and mental needs as well to be healthy leaders of people and organisations. So make sure you set realistic goals and maintain reasonable hours. Easier said than done, I know! And seek help when you are struggling.

Protecting our own mental health is a bit like the need to secure your own oxygen mask in a plane before attaching one to your child. Naomi Wilson, one of my People Measures colleagues, has boiled down her secrets to mental health:

  1. Develop absolute clarity about your priorities in life, both at work and at home

  2. Ensure you focus on what matters most and let go of unnecessary distractions

  3. Approach each and every day with an air of kindness, compassion and good humour.

  4. Sounds like a pretty good start for us all, don’t you think?


SANE Australia helpline 1800 187 263

Beyond Blue and their dedicated site for the workplace called Heads up

World Mental Health Day

Track your mood with the MoodPrism app. It will help you understand whether you need to seek help and will offer ideas when you do.