Embracing the uncertainty: how to create environments where people thrive

Adrian Wakeling, senior policy advisor at Acas, writes about why the approach to the mental health of staff should be holistic and sustainable.

As ACEVO’s report about creating a safe organisational culture states: “Culture is collective but it is modelled, and disproportionately influenced, by the behaviour of those at the top.”

Of course, leadership is not just under the microscope in the charitable sector. Many commentators have identified a bigger crisis in the trust we have for leaders, dating back to the economic recession and the perceived ethical failure of our financial and political role models. This loss of trust was very well encapsulated by the work of the Professor Hope-Hailey at the University of Bath and, notably, her report ‘Where has all the trust gone?’ 

Trust is at the heart of good leadership. It is also at the heart of looking after your employees, of making sure that, to quote the government’s report on mental health, they are able to ‘thrive at work’. The Bath research highlighted four key attributes of trustworthy leaders – ability, benevolence, integrity and predictability. I think it’s worth reflecting on these qualities when it comes to perhaps the big challenge facing workplaces today: creating a culture that promotes positive mental health and wellbeing.

Building mental health competencies

As the Acas Framework for Positive Mental Health makes clear, just doing the job, as an employee, manager or employer is no longer enough. You need to be able to see yourself as a whole person and to understand what makes you and other people feel safe and nurtured at work. Looking after your staff requires a mental health competence that reflects:

  • A high degree of emotional intelligence that demonstrates benign motives and engaging levels of empathy  
  • A deep understanding of the signs, symptoms and possible workplace solutions for both good and bad mental health
  • Knowing when and how to intervene. There is little evidence on this so a great deal will depend on your work context

Showing genuine concern for others

There is an overwhelming human imperative for promoting the mental health of your staff but, unfortunately, the business case still often needs to be made.

The recent CIPD survey on health and wellbeing found that most employers measure the impact of their wellbeing interventions by checking absence rates and scores on their employee surveys. There are many, many figures showing why you should act to look after the mental health of your staff – for example, by training managers to have those one-to-one conversations – but they can all seem a little bit negative. The stat I like to use is provided by the Mental Health Foundation – their research showed that the contribution to workplaces made by people with mental health problems is seven times higher than the cost of mental health to employers.

Agreeing standards and cultural norms

At Acas we love a good policy. And why not, leaders need to base their actions and values on agreed sets of behaviours. But as we’ve all been told a thousand times, policies should not hide on bits of paper or on computer software. They need to be lived and breathed every day.

The ultimate goal for any leader is to ask themselves ‘how healthy is my organisation?’ and to be able to say with sincerity that it is in good health. Our research found there are some key drivers of what we termed ‘anxious organisations’, namely, poor management of change, lack of line manager competence and work intensification. We certainly welcome the renewed interest in ‘good work’, spurred by Matthew Taylor’s ‘Review of Modern Working Practices’. Interestingly, the government has committed to measuring metrics for job quality, something Acas is heavily involved with. Hopefully, this will help drive better levels of organisational health.

Sticking at it and changing your mindset     

Surprisingly, a key attribute of good leaders is ‘predictability’. When it comes to wellbeing initiatives, I would take this to mean that leaders should not jump on bandwagons just because they’re trendy. To change cultures, employers need to change their mindsets. Mental health used to be thought of as a landmark that we were all accustomed to navigating around but, as Sir Brendan Barber aptly put it, mental health is now ‘the new landscape’. It’s about every part of our personal and working lives.

To change cultures, employers need to change their mindsets

Creating work that helps people thrive means taking the long road to sustainable business success – that looks after the people and not just the bottom line. This is certainly something we have learnt through our recent work with charitable organisations such as Amnesty. As the Bath research from all those years ago said, trust is about “embracing the uncertainty.”

Photo by Luca Upper on Unsplash

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