Kate Nowicki: Walking and Working Towards Better Mental Health
Thursday 17 November 2016Kate Nowicki, Acas East Midlands Area Director, discusses the management of mental health in the workplace.
Kate Nowicki is an Acas Area Director based in Nottingham.
Work is good for you, that's what we're told. It was especially good for me on Wednesday, as I walked in the sunshine to the launch of new Acas research on The Management of Mental Health at Work [1Mb]. As I listened to the presentations and the joined in the debate afterwards, it was easy for me to see that work is indeed good for me. But what was also clear is that it isn't good for everyone and there is so much to be done to address that.
As ever, the research drew on one of my favourite themes, which is that great managers are central to successful staff development. Dr Maria Hudson from Essex Business School presented compelling findings from a mix of case study evidence and wider literature. The evidence supports what I see: that the quality of leaders, line managers and supervisors is pivotal to supporting employees with any sort of mental ill health, and crucial in supporting employees' wellbeing more generally.
Gill Dix, Acas' Head of Strategy was first to respond to the research findings, and was unequivocal in endorsing this point and challenging the role that employers play. Workplaces should be neither a source of stress and illness, nor make existing conditions worse. They can and should prevent a downward spiral for those who may be wobbling. The gap in line manager skills and confidence that Gill described could be the difference between the supportive conversation which boosts someone's wellbeing and the blundering conversation, or no conversation at all, which sends them to the doctor's surgery anxious for a fit note.
I don't know why I continue to be surprised and disappointed by tales of lack of empathy, fear around disclosure, lack of any contact during sickness absence, and a kind of management paralysis accompanied by hushed tones and shuffling in seats. But it's real and as Gill said we are pleased to be part of a wider alliance of organisations working to advise, train and support employers to get great line managers doing a great job supporting staff with mental ill health.
The last speaker of the morning was Chris O'Sullivan from The Mental Health Foundation, and he made me smile when he stood up and said that he hoped everyone was fizzing like champagne. It was a bit early to be thinking of champagne, but I was fizzing with ideas, and frantically scribbling down a myriad of words and numbers that he shared. He turned bad news into good news: with findings from their latest research which suggests that around 5 million people with mental health problems contribute a staggering £225 billion (yes!) to the economy, which is about nine times more than their mental health condition costs the economy. Now that has to be good news.
Chris echoed Gill, as did the other speakers. Managing mental health should be a core part of the line management role. As I walked back into the sunshine I was reminded of a conversation with one of my own managers earlier in the week. 'When I have a conversation with a member of my staff' she said, 'I know that I have the capacity to harm that relationship or to improve that relationship'. Wow. Now that's the hallmark of a manager who cares about the mental wellbeing of her staff.
It was a lovely walk back to the station and I felt enthused about going back to work. Now the challenge as highlighted in Acas' new research is to support those with mental health conditions to feel the same way.