The rush of recognition of the mental health problem, always with us but precipitated by the pandemic, has led to a plethora of articles on the subject. I haven’t read them all but I have read several of them, from the great consultants to the local newspaper reporter’s offering. On the whole they are disappointing. They show areas of obvious management failure such as not observing an impending nervous breakdown for personal or clinical reasons. They discuss the quality of management – yes it is often lacking, but today’s managers are still less than fully educated in hormone disruption, ‘culture crunch’ and passive-aggressive behaviour.
We are forcing highly sensitive management requirements onto people who are daily told that their job is to produce at minimum possible cost or to sell at maximum possible price. If you give a manager too many targets s/he will achieve none. If you add to his or her target list too quickly s/he will drop some of the fundamentals to accommodate the latest fad. Believe me, managers are mighty cynical about top management’s latest whim. So I do not think a few patches will solve the now admitted, and increasing, mental health problem.
Articles that say it starts at the top are correct. It starts there because that is where the culture of the business is created. And it is the culture of the business that matters. That culture has to say that no matter how ‘customer-centric’ we claim to be, our employees come before our customers. Many businesses will still dispute this. Profit and the creation of wealth will still be their first mantra. Survival – of us all – a somewhat bedraggled third after customers have been satisfied. “Customers come first,” they say, “because they put the butter on the bread”.
Of course customers are critically important to a business and all efforts to please and satisfy them are justified. But who pleases the customer? The workforce, obviously. What does the workforce need to spur it on to greater effort while remaining marginally sane? It needs time. Time of their bosses, time and understanding. Bosses are taught to give instructions. They need to listen, too.
Above all they need to ask the right questions. The people working for them are perfectly able to tell when they are not performing well, when their productivity has slipped, when they feel overwhelmed with work and undervalued by their employer. The culture must encourage them to voice what they feel is happening. Caught early, 90% of mental health problems can be handled effectively within the manager’s authority and skill. If he needs better help than he can give, the intelligent manager will ask for it – as s/he has been trained to do.
The frightening thing about mental health is its camouflage. Unless time is devoted to informal chats between employee and employer, an impeding problem can go undetected or – more often – unadmitted for a very long time. That is when the 10% of serious problems arise. Worries about our ability to do the job we have been given escalate and multiply when harboured within our mind. The smallest ridge on the workseat we have been given to sit on for our job can throw our entire skeleton out of joint. We have the sense to say if we feel uncomfortable. The least misalignment between our mind and our work has the same effect but we are reluctant to mention it. Relaxed, informal time and good earthy questions are the answer.
I knew a man who stole from his company. He was very senior, well paid and probably a bit too ambitious. He got overstretched and asked his boss – the Finance Director – if he could borrow some money. His request was refused without any questions as to why he needed the money, for how long and when. So he stole it. He was caught of course – by the company. Disgracefully, in my view, the police were never called. But the greatest disgrace was the Finance Director’s. Moral: Never refuse a request for anything without exploring the need for, and the purpose of, it.
I encourage all managers at every level to watch a good movie “An Inspector Calls”- see the original film with Alistair Sim as the Inspector. It’s a great yarn and a salutary lesson.
Don’t end up as any of the characters – except, of course, the inspector.
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