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?

A marriage separation has broken his heart. “She’s up the road with another fella, I’ve got the kids”. His mates must know – but how much do they know? He still turns up for work, keeps to himself, does his job. ‘Yeah – he’s fine.’ Except….

“When I go home from work, I wait for the kids to go to bed, and then I drink. I work 4 days on and 4 days off, and its zero tolerance at work, so I make sure I’m right when I’m on. But when I’m off, I just write myself off – 4 days.”

I’m sorry to hear that… who have you talked to about that? “Just you, now. My mates… they must know, but no-one has said a word to me.”

Let’s reframe this:

  • He’s lost his life partner, maternal family presence, and probably chef
  • His relationship with his kids is possibly in decline
  • He’s drinking more, eating badly, exercising less, achieving less, probably putting on weight, losing self respect, blaming himself for stuffing up
  • He’s isolated himself from his mates at work, and probably stays home more, esp. if he’s drunk
  • His finances have halved. He may be gambling on the internet to comfort himself
  • He’s probably not disciplined they way he was, drinks and drives, and hopes he doesn’t get tested on site at work

He faces huge challenges now, and only has to lose his job for a crisis to be fully present. But how visible is this from the outside? For all intents, he’s fine, he’s turning up. Best not to invade his privacy, give him his space.


He is so far also demonstrating a lack of coping skills and resilience as yet unfound – he lacks the skills to communicate to his mates, chooses first to tell a trusted stranger (me) and hopefully that in itself is a step in the right direction. But his instinctive responses are sending him the wrong direction. He needs help. Whose problem is this?

Would the workplace want to know (think also ‘fly in fly out’) if their employees were spending their leisure time so poorly – returning so empty? If the workplace developed his personal coping, could they expect an increase in use of his corporate competencies?
Would his mates be devastated to learn that they were meaning well, but letting him down?
What would a company be willing to invest to keep this capable employee healthy, even if they have not directly created the problem? They certainly have to live the consequences. Why not start something? Help solve this problem.

A pattern has emerged, where he stays up to 2am, drinks 6-7 beers, and roams the dating chat-line while his wife and kids sleep in the next rooms. Harmless right? (he tells himself).

He has no intention to actually meet anyone. Until… there is a request to meet on skype, and to then undress… “oh no – not that – not into that!” Except its already too late – she’s 15, and a Police warning follows – real or fake we don’t know. So much for the harmless bad habit. How did we end up here?

But why start in the first place – where did this habit come from? Restless, can’t go to bed, alcohol to self-medicate, to numb some kind of awareness or pain, and to isolate himself so it remains invisible, and won’t embarrass.
A man navigating his way between the lines – not happy, not on the rocks, and coping by avoidance. Still at work, so he is still outwardly functioning, and for all appearances just like anyone else. Except for the secret discomfort.

What’s the diagnosis? It could be anything – a struggling marriage, rebellious children, boring employment, awareness of aging, declining fitness, no close friends who would listen, guilt over past mistakes, fear of the future…
Each of these are very normal experiences for parents, for adults. On this occasion however, the coping skills are failing – avoidance, worry, not solving a problem, perhaps self-blame and certainly isolation.

We’re challenged here with the final stage of adult development – maturity. And not everyone gets there – especially men.
We typically perceive mental health issues when the functioning fails – when they can’t get to work anymore – or they lose their job – grinding to a halt. But prior to that? The easy jobs had become hard, the avoiding while still appearing to deliver 100% – nearly. There are many people below their best, and if you can see yourself in this, do something about it.

Join us, email Skillbiz to enquire about the 50/50 programme. In a spirit of support, work out what to do. Send me a note. Start something, back yourself.