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Boundaries needed to understand mental health ‘minefield’

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Recognising roles “key” to avoid burdening leaders

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Business leaders and HR professionals need to ensure they properly assert “boundaries” between themselves and employees’ mental health needs, according to Dr Simon Fox, head of law at Solent University.

The pandemic gave rise to an increased focus on mental health by companies as many people have struggled with the effects of lockdowns and social distancing measures. According to Nuffield Trust, the percentage of adults suffering from symptoms of depression doubled in the UK last year.

While it can be tempting for leaders to try and help their colleagues any way they can, senior management needs to understand where appropriate boundaries are to ensure they don’t become overloaded, said Fox.

“There needs to be an understanding of the boundaries so that when you see that boundary being breached you can then triage to a mental health professional,” he said at a round table discussion hosted by law firm Paris Smith.

“If they’re authentic types of leaders, they will want to help, they will want to empathise further and further and further. Next thing you know, you’re developing this relationship with somebody and you’re trying to help them but you’re not a mental health professional,” he added.

This was not a case of being “uncaring” as a leader, Fox said. Ensuring that boundaries are clearly set means leaders and HR professionals can tend to their own mental health and the mental health of their colleagues most effectively.

Pandemic taking toll

Gail Thomas, managing director at industrial metal supplier, TW Metals said that managing her staffs’ mental health had become a “minefield” since the pandemic began.

Thomas said TW Metals had invested in professional health services similar to many firms around the UK but still felt unable to help her colleagues effectively while managing a business.

“My overriding feeling is whatever I do, it’s not quite good enough,” she said at the round table.

“It’s such a difficult thing to do as a business to help everybody with all of their problems because we’ve never been in this situation where individual people’s problems are so, so different and their needs are so, so different.

“They all look to the senior leadership team to come up with a one-size-fits-all solution for all of these problems and I just don’t have it,” she added.

James Cretney, chief executive at Marwell Wildlife agreed with Thomas, adding that he was concerned that the debate around employers and senior management’s responsibilities on mental health had gone too far.

“We have to care for ourselves, we have to talk about stuff and we need to remove the masks that we sometimes wear.

“But we’ve got to be careful here that this pendulum doesn’t swing so far one direction that we become paralysed,” he added. “There is always help here for you if you need it… but also we don’t want to invade your space and smother you either.”

“Happy cows make more milk”

During the round table discussion, the panellists described how they had seen businesses take a more proactive approach to mental health, offering more services like phonelines or counselling sessions since the pandemic began.

Claire Merritt, partner at law firm Paris Smith said this was in part due to the changes in the law brought by the Equality Act where firms must make “reasonable adjustments” for someone with a disability which includes a mental health condition. The pandemic may also have created something of an awakening among company leaders, she said.

“There is a mixture of a moral duty for wanting to support people through a difficult time, but equally, happy cows make more milk.

“I there’s been a sense of ‘let’s make sure everyone is alright’ because this a really challenging time for every human being on the planet,” she added.


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