University staff have experienced a growing number of interlinked challenges in recent years. Employees had to quickly adapt to using online technologies whilst balancing personal and work commitments. People needed to handle an even heavier workload and meet increasing targets. Many Higher Education (HE) managers face a variety of challenges such as limited careers support, job uncertainty, anxiety and working in isolation. Support for mental health awareness and wellbeing is becoming a priority within the HE sector.
In the following article, I have collected some guidance on how HE managers can develop their awareness of mental health issues and support their teams more effectively.
Personal wellbeing– Line managers are key to employee wellbeing. As Kelly Greenwood and Natasha Krol write in the Harvard Business Review: ‘the role of a manager remains the same: to support your team members. That includes supporting their mental health.’ Supporting individuals can be a real challenge when managers struggle with their own mental health concerns. Managers need to focus on self-care to ensure their own personal wellbeing.
Many of us are very good at looking after others however tend to ignore our personal needs. We encourage others to take regular breaks from work, exercise, to rest more, however, we do not always ‘walk our talk’. Taking time out to regularly recharge the batteries can make a positive difference as well as working with a coach. A supportive coach can act as a sounding board and provide encouragement in difficult times. Journaling about feelings, concerns and challenges is empowering because people can externalise their deepest thoughts and look at them more rationally.
Mental health conversations – According to research by Education Support (2019), 60 per cent of university staff would not reveal mental health problems to their employer. Managers need to be aware that a significant number of staff members experience mental health challenges and issues.
Supporting employees’ well-being can never be a one-off event. It needs to be part of everyday conversations. Trust is important because individuals are more likely to share mental health concerns with their managers if they have a positive working relationship with them. Conversations around mental health should start from day one. Newly recruited staff members need to be assured that they can have a conversation about mental health and they would receive the necessary support. Regular one-to-one meetings are an excellent idea because they may develop a supportive relationship between managers and their staff. Some managers prefer to have weekly meetings whilst others like to schedule two-weekly or monthly meetings.
Mental health may also be introduced into team meetings. As a manager, you can start with asking individuals to talk about how they are doing and to rate their mental health on a scale of 1-10.
Sally works as an Academic Manager in a well-known university which is located in the South East of England. She is looking after a team of six people whilst managing her own busy workload. Sally decided to schedule two-weekly ‘catch-up’ meetings with her staff. She found that these meetings contributed to getting to know her staff both at a personal and professional level. She was able to listen to individuals’ concerns, get to know how they were feeling about their workload, and provided signposting to mental health support services.
Sign positing – Mental health conversations can be powerful because managers may have the opportunity to ask questions, listen carefully to their staff and effectively respond. They should be aware of both internal and external support initiatives and provide signposting when needed. Most universities offer Employee Assistance Programmes and provide free, independent and confidential support including counselling. Managers could recommend Education Support which is a UK charity supporting the mental wellbeing of education staff in universities. The Charity called Mind offers advice to people with mental health problems as well as a range of initiatives. Samaritans aim at providing emotional support to anyone in emotional distress, and they can be accessed any time of the day.
Training – According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, employees who thought that their managers did not have effective communication skills were more likely to experience health issues. However, communication skills can be developed through training courses. Having a toolkit of different communication approaches can help with giving individual feedback, asking the right questions in mental health conversations, and coaching staff members.
CIPD highlights that ‘Line managers are key to employee wellbeing and should ensure people’s workloads and deadlines are manageable.’ Within higher education, individuals often get promoted to management or leadership based on merit. After they have done an excellent job for a significant amount of time and have proven their skills and commitment, they are promoted to manage teams. Very few individuals can however manage well without prior training. Managing other people is complex, and it could take years of trial and error to develop the right skills. Management courses are useful as managers can learn how to develop supportive relationships with their staff. Managers can familiarise themselves with the best practices and theories of management, and improve their problem-solving.
‘Poor mental health is now the number 1 reason we miss work’, as per the well-known charity called Mind. Mental health awareness training is essential because managers need to recognise mental health issues. Training could enable managers to provide the right support to individuals, to ask effective questions, and to promote well-being at work. Managers need to learn how to create psychological safety so that staff members can open up and share some of their concerns. They need to learn how to have solution-focused conversations about mental health without trying to fix other people’s problems. They should know how to maintain professional boundaries and not take on others’ problems.
Mental health awareness courses are important because they can contribute to developing self-awareness. As a result, managers will be able to take responsibility for their own well-being and recognise when they need further support. They will be able to manage others more effectively and develop harmonious work relationships.
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To continue the conversation on mental health we are hosting a webinar to support World Mental Day with Advance HE. Find out more information and to register for our exclusive webinar Mental Health and Wellbeing: HE Minds Matter.