I've thought a lot about the way I handle mental health issues as a line manager recently- this is because of a few things that have happened recently. Firstly, I’m nearing the end of a mental health awareness course that OVO sponsored me to do as part of a company mental health intiative. Secondly, a close friend of mine started work for a Bristol mental health charity. I spoke to her a few days ago about her equivalent of the regular 1-1. In our industry, the 1-1 is mainly about career development, performance management, goal-setting, and providing a private space to talk between engineers and managers (usually about techie stuff). Of course, ‘pastoral care’ is part of the tech industry 1-1 as well, but it’s often a sideline issue that only comes up occasionally. By contrast, my friend’s 1-1s are very much centred on pastoral care, and verge on actual counselling- in many lines of work which involve helping other people deal with difficult life issues (social work, therapy, psychiatry etc), the person doing the job also receives counselling or therapy themselves on a regular basis. I think we could perhaps take a few lessons from this.
How do you know that your engineers are doing OK? There’s still a lot of stigma about mental health issues, and people don’t usually want to talk about them, frankly. Also, people deal with their problems in a huge variety of ways. A few questions my friend was asked in one of her first 1-1s, and which you could ask your engineers, are:
"How would I know that you are feeling on top of things?"
"What signs are there that you are struggling?"
"What ways do you find work for you when you need to ask for help?"
People tend to be more comfortable answering these sorts of questions rather than more specific, personal questions that rely on your assumptions (e.g. “I noticed you look a bit down, is everything OK at home?”). They will give you a future indicator of whether people are coping or not. They will hopefully let your engineers know that you care about how they feel and that they can talk about this sort of stuff, not just whether they’ve completed that AWS certification they were doing for their next performance review.
Back to my mental health course- A really good way to start taking care of your engineers’ mental health is simply to learn more about mental health issues. Most people would not know what the symptoms of various issues are, how they affect people’s lives, and what the first ports of call are for help and support. In my experience as a line manager, probably the most common mental health issue I see is stress (note that we all undergo ‘normal’ stress, and that it only becomes a mental health issue when it’s chronic and regularly affects one’s daily life and ability to carry out normal day-to-day tasks). So, go and read up a little about it as a starter for 10.
I’m just beginning my own learning journey about mental health issues, and all I want any managers reading this to take away is simply to educate yourselves a little, and to think a little more about ways in which you can support your direct reports to be as mentally healthy as possible.