Whilst competencies describe behaviours a company wants, none of them describe the human engine-room that powers their use. Mental health awareness is reminding us of first principles. If we’re not mentally healthy, corporate competencies are irrelevant – they are not available to the person trying to apply them.

Behavioural competencies were designed to measure the human being as a resource. But stress didn’t fit. Stress claims in the 80’s were seen as malingering (the mental equivalent of the bad back), punishable by bullying. Beating stress with clear performance definitions were partly what competencies were for.  Chronic stress was deemed to be a sign of incompetence and a personality flaw – instead of what we now know it to be – a warning sign of someone approaching their unique human limits. And having mental human limits were worthy of condemnation. A broken leg was easy to understand. Anxiety or depression were deliberate evading of accountability.

We know better now. The Beyond Blue National Workplace Program is a good example of assisting many companies taking the first step of raising awareness. What next?

Coping skills – such as exercise, diet, social support, optimism, constructive self-talk, sense of humour, community engagement – (everything my mother taught me – ‘sheesh – she was right’.)

Can you see these coping skills explicitly on your current learning and development menu or social calendar? Do they fit there? What about their opposites – how would you corporately address these – wishful thinking, tension reduction/diversions, avoidance, self blame, isolation?  At present, many companies delegate these needs to Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), or to professionally unqualified consultants in generic training sessions, or to lunchtime opt-in sessions.

EAP is now looking dated – regarded as crisis prevention by most and stigmatised because of it. Workplace chaplains also present as a relic of a questionable religious era, where good intentions mattered more than skills, and stigmatised because of it.

(There are plenty of good and capable people in these roles – I refer in general to how the roles came into being and have not since adapted, or been effective in reducing stigma in many workplaces).

The key messages for mental health are:

  1. make it safe to talk about’,
  2. let people know they are not alone’, and
  3. lead people to help’.

All of which can only happen if we bring service delivery of these needs out into the open. EAP is confidential, mostly appropriately, but inaccessible for many. In some companies, users still need to ring HR to get the EAP phone number. No-one wants to appear to be in crisis, (except those actually in crisis and who don’t care). The rumour mill runs rampant if anyone is sighted making use of them, and punishes those who risk the stigma. And since when is psychology relevant only to those in crisis?

Admitting to a mental struggle can feel like the first step towards voluntary redundancy – the ultimate career-limiting move.
Trust around mental health is in dispute. Companies get confused which to address first – mental health or poor performance. If companies only ‘see’ people who struggle when they underperform, then trust is compromised – its already too late.

Until we can accept that genetics and lifetime upbringing/experiences mean mental health problems are to be expected for many in our population, and in our employee list, trust cannot start.

To this point, many companies have said – ‘leave your troubles at the door’. Perform or go. But now there are so many people struggling – not just the “failures” but the elite as well – that companies are re-assessing what to do (we’re still at awareness phase for many).
Its normal to know someone who struggles.
Its normal to eventually have to performance-manage someone who struggles if there is no intervention. Doesn’t mean its easy, but we can learn some lessons.

So what to do?

  • Go here for 10 things companies can do, at the HeadsUp website
  • Bring mental health into the mainstream – not just in our spare time. Could a preventive mental health lifestyle become a corporate incentive – a basis for financial reward? If you keep yourself healthy, you get this… as well…
  • Could we add value by populating our L&D menu with e.g. the 3 pillars – sleep, diet, exercise? How much do you know about the science of sleep? Not only passively offering a gym membership, but a coach as well – for everyone? Lunchtime chef instruction? What about parenting, grief, nurturing artistic skills and languages, book clubs, or mindfulness, or how to be a comedian? Many companies have already started.
  • Build into your corporate values – along the lines of –  we take pride in our achievements, and support people whatever challenges they face; we’re an employer of choice, because we build community, build human skills, not just employee skills.
  • remodel EAPs – rename it for a start – to embrace everyday challenges – not just crisis, delivered with more client control.

What step does your company need to take next?