Relationships at work: our top tips for managers

Relationships and the workplace conjures up an image of stationery cupboard trysts and forms for HR that declare that two colleagues are ‘an item’. This Mental Health Awareness Week we are looking at relationships across the board.

We know that work that is challenging, rewarding and validating is one of the most valuable ways to improve our mental health. We also know that work-related stress, poor line management, badly managed change, bullying and discrimination quickly take a toll on our mental health.

Work gives us a purpose, a role, financial means and status. It also gives us social relationships, and, as this week’s report on 21st Century relationships shows, social contact may be as important a mediator of health outcomes as obesity or smoking.

Luckily, the principles of good management and good business practice are, by and large, principles which contribute to the development of a mentally healthy workplace.

So how do the top tips for healthy relationships apply to working life, and in particular to the line management relationship?

Give time

Time is money. Time is precious. There’s not enough time in the day. Time is a constant theme in modern workplaces. As managers, we are now under more pressure than ever to deliver, develop and to ensure delivery from our teams.

There has never been a more important time to create an environment in which people can succeed, and feel supported.

Top tips

  • Make time in your diary for staff to come to you or you to go to them - and chat.
    You’ll be able to spot any problems earlier.
  • If you have an open-door policy, people who have concerns will feel more able to engage and sort problems.
  • Have regular, brief staff meetings with clear agendas.
    Everybody likes to feel the pulse of the organisation and to feel connected to the work others are doing and the successes and challenges the team faces.
  • Make time for networking.
    Keep a coffee slot free each week and use it to meet business contacts you haven’t seen for a while, to mentor others or be mentored.
  • Imagine supervision and appraisal processes not as a chore, but as a gift.
    Authentic feedback is one of the best things you can give a member of staff. Set times in advance and never, ever deprioritise this in favour of another meeting.
  • Practice self-care.
    Give time to yourself and time to your friends and family, no matter how committed to work you are.

Be present

We all recognise the pull of the smartphone vibrating on the table or the creeping thoughts of the next meeting.

It is key to focus on the task in hand, especially when that is investing in one-to-one time with colleagues, or attending a meeting or presentation.

Top tips

  • Try and turn your phone off.
    There’s a difference between tweeting key points at a conference and writing emails on your iPhone throughout a staff meeting with your team. It shows, and it sends a message to the person you are with that they aren’t top priority.
  • You could consider phone-free sessions.
    Try getting everyone to put all their devices in a box during work sessions.
  • If you find it difficult to focus and be present, work on toning your ’attention muscles’ to work on that.
    Mindfulness is an evidence-based method for learning to recognise and appreciate what is happening as it happens, you can do a course or use an app.
  • If you are in a meeting and losing concentration, try grounding yourself to keep focus.
    Place your feet flat on the floor, notice the feel of your feet in your shoes. Sit up straight. Notice your breath. If you find yourself becoming angry or frustrated, try the same technique and let the anger subside.
  • Try using a pen and paper to make notes.
    You can always keep any sudden flashes of inspiration in the margins so they don’t get lost or distract you. If you do need to type during meetings go full screen, and disable notifications so you aren’t dragged into emails or social media.
  • Try and take a proper lunch break, and get outside.
    A key aspect of being present in your work relationships is turning off and recharging. Alternatively, try a walking meeting. You will get some fresh air and pay more attention to the conversation you are having.

Listen and be heard

Listening is vital for every relationship. Listening and hearing are different. We listen passively to all sorts of things, including what our colleagues tell us. If we switch from passively taking stuff in to actively listening and hearing what is being said, the quality of the conversation increases dramatically. This is good for productivity, and vital for having conversations about mental health at work.

The line management relationship is likely to be the context in which concerns about wellbeing, performance or progress arise. This means that line managers are uniquely placed to recognise distress.

First contact is key when someone isn’t coping. They are likely to feel embarrassed, ashamed or nervous bringing it up at work. If you respond in an open, supportive way, you can set a pattern that helps them seek support and feel less apprehensive.

First and foremost, people who aren’t coping, for whatever reason, want and need a compassionate, human response. That connection can then lead to practical support at work and referral or signposting to internal and external sources of expert advice.

So how do we have those conversations?

Top Tips

  • We all have times when we can’t cope.
    As managers, we are often clear about how we support a colleague or team member through bereavement, a divorce or with caring responsibilities. The same skills of empathy, flexibility, time, boundaries and support apply in supporting staff in distress because of their mental health.
  • Pick your time and location, if you can.
    Make sure you feel you can give the conversation time and be present.
  • Know your organisation’s policies in this area.
    You should know the boundaries of what you can offer in terms of support and flexibility. Being consistent within these policies is key.
  • Have resources to hand.
    If you have contact details for Samaritans in your phone, or a list of resources on mental health and well-being on your laptop you can provide useful resources then and there.
  • Know yourself.
    You will know where your boundaries are as a manager and as a human being. If you have relevant personal experience, consider using it if you feel safe in doing so. Equally, if you have personal concerns that make it hard for you to engage with particular issues, be aware of those.
  • If you have doubts, treat someone as you would want to be treated and how you would treat anybody who was experiencing another kind of distress or a serious illness.
  • Recap what you have discussed and agreed and make sure you do what you say you will.
  • Being listened to and making your voice heard is vital to good relationships.
    Assertiveness and confidence are also the first things to go in times of change, or when we are feeling under stress.
  • Whether for mental health reasons or purely business reasons, engaging your people and hearing their voice increases productivity and staff loyalty to the organisation.
    Setting a tone and leading from the front is a key aspect of the leadership relationship senior staff have with colleagues too.
  • If you have a clear strategy in which people feel invested and involved and in which they see their role, they will feel engaged and excited.
    If your performance management and appraisal systems allow people to explore and develop their talent and give, receive and integrate feedback, then people will feel valued and fairly treated. That is the same for all staff, and those staff who are at risk of poor mental health or live with mental health problems.
  • One of the best ways to challenge stigma and discrimination in mental health is through hearing people like you, who have metal health problems talk directly to you about that.
    People who experience mental health problems are the experts in their lives and their needs. You learn a lot about yourself and your needs when you have a breakdown. When it’s appropriate, ask and never assume.

Recognise unhealthy relationships

We all recognise unhelpful relationships, whether it’s friendships or personal relationships.

Top tips

  • Use any employee assistance programme or counselling provision to discuss and develop strategies for managing difficult relationships at work.
    It is hard to stand up for yourself or a colleague if you aren’t sure, or worry about the consequences. Try to call out bad behaviour at the time, or log incidents and speak to a trusted colleague, HR or your manager.
  • Don’t give stigma a home.
    You should address any bullying or ‘joking’ in a team in relation to mental health and lead from the front in welcoming and supporting people with mental health problems in the team, or as customers. If you are in doubt about the line between banter and discrimination imagine the comment related to race or gender. Would it be OK then?
  • Make sure you have and use a fair grievance policy and anti-bullying policy.
    Ensure that your policies on harassment and discrimination are up-to-date, and that they apply equally to harassment by staff and by customers/clients. If appropriate, make sure there is a whistleblowing policy in place that allows staff to report incidents.
  • Sometimes, a person’s behaviour whilst unwell can have an impact on the way they, or others in the workplace, can view their return to work. 
    If a problem has been bubbling away, it can be hard to make things right once a person gets support and is feeling better. You can help address that through team training, mentoring or coaching, and support for other team members.
  • Sometimes, you may come to recognise that unusual behaviours in the workplace that come up in supervision sessions as difficulties engaging with others may be a sign that all is not well. 
    If a person’s behaviour is unusual or out of character, make time to discuss their wellbeing alongside considering other avenues such as disciplinary or competence procedures.
  • Don’t let problems fester.
    You can deal with this. If you need to have a difficult conversation with a colleague, manager or employee make a plan, choose an appropriate time and place and be prepared to listen and be listened to.
  • Know what support you can call on.
    Do you have HR support or occupational health support for instance? Nobody expects you to be a doctor or an employment law specialist. Your job is to connect with your team, as they know you best. That might be in recognising a problem, or in offering practical support on an ongoing basis.
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