My experiences of managing colleagues with poor mental health

Written by CMI Member, Pamela Jary Tuesday 17 November 2020
Right now, the world is unsettling and uncertain. I’ve managed teams previously who have gone through periods of poor mental health – here’s what I’ve learned

I have some insights I would like to share with you around working while dealing with the poor mental health of your colleagues and team members. I have learnt a lot from my own experiences of managing through lockdown and from managing and supporting staff with mental health difficulties in different circumstances.

My main piece of advice to managers with staff with mental health conditions (which I don’t think we should refer to as ‘problems’ or ‘issues’ as that sets up the wrong kind of thinking) is: abiding by policy alone is not enough! Now is the time for managers to engage with their human self – but not at the expense of professionalism or business needs.

What I’ve written comes from personal experience and lots of reading and research over the years, ever since I managed my first member of staff with a mental health condition. I had to stand against a person who wanted me to put them on report, but I gained the support of my manager to handle the matter in a more compassionate way and the person going through a difficult time went on to become a very valued and productive member of my team.

Since then I have managed several people with similar conditions and have even had to self-manage myself through a difficult period. I have found that organisations are very well equipped to deal with physical ailments but are less understanding and supportive when it comes to mental health despite many having good intentions. Some tips, which I hope you’ll find useful, are below.


When a member of staff plucks up the courage to speak to you about their mental health let them talk, ask questions to clarify your understanding and actively listen to what they are telling you. Acknowledge that it took courage for them to speak to you and put them at their ease.

Do not make assumptions about what they are going through, even if you have suffered from depression or anxiety. Their experience and needs may not be the same. But, if you are comfortable with doing so, share your story of dealing with mental health. I promise it will not diminish you and will help them deal with shame or feelings of failure they have by feeling less alone.

It may be work but be compassionate

Show that you value them and you care about their welfare. Do not talk about business needs as it could make them feel like they are a secondary concern. Motivated people take care of business for you when they feel looked after so help them to do their job to the best of their ability.

If they ask for something, do not push it back on them. They have come to you for help because they need it. Your expectations of them in a normal time – outside of the pandemic, not working remotely during lockdowns, not going through a period of poor mental health – are irrelevant, no matter their grade or position. You would not criticise a marathon runner with a broken leg if they asked for help walking or even standing up!

Do not write off their potential

They may be less resilient or robust right now, but that does not mean that they won't get better or do well in the long-term with the right support.  If it’s helpful to do so, think of their mental health part as something separate to them – they are still the ‘them’ that has all the skills, knowledge and experience they had before.

Remember that everyone is doing the best that they can, even if it falls short of your usual expectations right now. Realign your expectations of them with what they are able to achieve and build from there. If they are struggling, then expecting them to measure up to someone not dealing with the issues that they are then you are more likely to make the situation worse for them. No one person should be crucial to business so you can operate with them at less than 100% effectiveness for a while.

Think outside the box

Consider alternative roles, projects, tasks, or duties for them if their current ones are not currently achievable for them. Discuss these with them so they are part of the decision-making process. Don't surprise them with things that you think are good news but may be horrifying to them (see the point about listening and not making assumptions).

Put in place any reasonable adjustments you discuss with them and don’t leave it to them to do on their own or leave it so that they have to chase this as this will make them feel less valued and increase their mental burden.

Generally, I advise:

  • Train all of your managers in mental health first aid awareness rather than having a few mental health first aiders if possible. If managers think dealing with mental health is someone else’s job then they may not take responsibility for it when someone in their team needs their help.
  • Hold your managers to account if they have someone in their team that has reasonable adjustments in place. Make sure they are taking responsibility and acting appropriately.
  • Include staff dealing with mental health as normal – don't assume they might not want to go out, or go on a course etc. Ask them!

As for people working while they are dealing with mental health:

  • Check that what you are asking or expecting is reasonable. If you are unable to gain that perspective for yourself either ask a trusted friend or think: “If a friend asked me about this what would my response be?” Taking yourself out of the equation can help you to be more objective.
  • Look at alternative working patterns if necessary. Even discuss how you could manage ad-hoc needs – for instance if you get up one day and can't cope but find you feel better later the same day and are able to contribute.
  • Advocate for yourself. It can be so hard, but if you don't, no-one else will. If things are difficult, seek allies such as trusted colleagues or friends to help you, your GP, or look up the process and ensure it is being followed (which usually involves occupational health and/or HR).
  • Be clear about what you can and can't do right now on a good day and a bad day so they know what to expect.
  • Practice self compassion – even if your management team is not being compassionate, give yourself a break. Notice when you do well right now and don't compare yourself now, to you at your very best.
  • Practice good self management, perhaps by using a checklist and aide memoires or whatever works for you. If you can't meet a deadline or do something because of a bad period, let your manager know as soon as possible so they can make other plans.

There is absolutely room for compassion in business and I have found that in the long-term it strengthens relationships with staff and within the team and creates a culture of support and inclusiveness.

Do you have a story or piece of advice to share with our readership? We’d love to hear from you. You can either email us with a summary of your experiences, or get in touch with us via social media using #CMIFamily.

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