Working in a startup, it’s common to be promoted to a management position at a young age. In my mid-20s I found myself managing a team of very high performers without having the knowledge of how to spot mental health red flags.
Mental health issues such as burnout are more likely found in high performers, but I didn’t know it at the time.
I don’t think that lack of knowledge about mental health was due to being in a startup though, or because of being young either.
It’s something that hasn’t had mainstream visibility until fairly recently.
My wake-up call was when my team was pushed to the breaking point, and I only realised it afterwards.
Staff who were previously very social and engaged in conversation (even just office banter) became quiet, and when asked if everything was okay, they would say they were “fine”.
I myself was experiencing the same burnout as my team, so I also wasn’t able to provide the support that my team needed. Instead of being able to lift my team up, I had to lift myself out first.
We — as in, every single person — are fortunate that mental health is being destigmatised and is discussed much more openly than it used to be, in both our personal and professional lives.
Events such as R U OK Day are so important for these very reasons.
A more specific conversation around mental health at work still needs to be had though.
Research from our UK team has shown that people who are out of work are having a rough time mentally, but also that those who are still working are doing it just as tough, and this needs to be acknowledged.
Part of the problem is that most managers, like me, will encounter this scenario without experience to manage it.
There are resources out there to train and help support managers through these situations, however, they are usually leveraged after the damage is done.
I learnt the hard way that the best way to manage mental health in the workplace is to be proactive about it.
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When I was addressing my own mental health, I had two incredible people to lean on. The first, James Routledge, is a personal friend, a huge mental health advocate and the founder of Sanctus. The second was Mona Akiki, Perkbox’s vice-president of people.
Through both of them, I learnt that looking after mental health is an everyday activity, not reserved for when you’re in a bad spot.
If I were to go back and do it all again, I would factor in more capacity for holidays and breaks while it was still in the planning phase. Those breaks then need to be enforced.
Crucially, I would have brought in support while I was managing this rather than after the damage was done.
Those in people and culture roles have so much expertise to offer on this topic, even if it is just a fresh perspective.
Most companies have plans and policies in place to deal with burnout and mental health, but they aren’t put into place until after the damage is done.
To summarise, my advice to managers across the country is, be frank and honestly ask your staff if they are genuinely OK.
Start conversations about this now, and be ready to offer time off or other support without hesitation or guilt.
This period is already so difficult for many.
This simple act of just recognising the impact of mental health in the workplace could make all the difference in the lives and wellbeing of your team.