In the early and subsequent days of my Vistage chair tenure I have used many great open coaching questions during one-to-one sessions with my members.
In those early days we looked upon it as “peeling the onion”, drilling deeper to establish a cause rather than merely a symptom of a personal problem. (Curiously and coincidentally I have a member of my current Vistage CEO Peer group whose business actually manufactures mechanised onion peelers! AI for coaches?)
On several occasions the peeling process went into areas that were significantly more complex than either of us could explain at which point I make it clear that as I am not a professional counsellor, therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist, I would suggest that the member take some professional advice.
The fact is that mental health issues don’t always appear obvious on the surface. There can be a danger of being dismissive; of treating them with a “deal with it” approach. This in turn can have just the opposite effect needed.
The problem lies in the frequent invisibility of mental health symptoms. There is often still a measure of perceived shame in admitting that we have an issue until the condition escalates.
A couple of weeks ago we had National Mental Health Awareness week and the BBC marked the occasion by giving time to well known people to discuss their condition.
For example Alastair Campbell, lately Labour Party Press Secretary who talked about his depression and the wonderful Nadiya Hussein, TV Bake-Off winner, a bright, talented and articulate woman who also talks movingly about her problems with anxiety. It is well worth taking time to Google her name and take a look at the video clips where she emphasises the need to talk about the condition and not keep it under wraps.
I have been listening recently to the audio version of Winston Churchill by Roy Jenkins, a remarkable and scholarly biography of the great war time leader. Churchill exhibited some strange symptoms and constant mood swings.
He also went through periods of worry and depression that he called his “black dog” and often took himself out of the mood swing by physical exercise.
I mentioned earlier the need for professional advice. I found it very useful to have a small “go-to” coterie of specialists such as counsellors and psychologists who we could call on when the onion peeling was becoming fraught. The member could then decide which one to use if appropriate.
Some of my peer group members offer a professional and totally confidential advice service to all their employees suffering from mental health issues. Anyone can call the advice line for help and the company only knows the number of calls being made and nothing else. This I consider to be a forward thinking and compassionate service, greatly to be admired.
All the overt symptoms of mental health issues like addiction, alcohol and/or drugs, mood swings, variations in performance, temper flare-ups and so on can indicate a problem that needs to be addressed.
To summarise the situation, mental health issues are far more prevalent than we imagine and unless we are professionals we as leaders should not venture into solution mode simply because we are not qualified to do so.
So what can we, as leaders, do to assist a member of staff with problems? First of all we need to accept that mental health issues are with us and can affect anyone.
Secondly we also need to accept that while there will always be a small proportion of people who adversely take advantage of the situation, the majority must be treated by us with discretion, understanding and compassion. How would we treat a member of the team who had a broken arm? So use that approach as a basis for such action that we can validly take.
Please forgive my flailing about in this post. It was possibly the most significant and difficult issue that I have tried to address.
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