Peeling back the layers for positive mental health at work

June 12, 2019

More companies are beginning to understand the importance of positive mental health at work. But according to expert Dr Shaun Davis, we now need to do more to start looking at mental health through a more holistic lens, by peeling back the layers. And as employers, this means getting to know the people we employ – on a real, human level.

Who is Dr Shaun Davis?

Dr Shaun Davis is the Global Director of Safety, Health, Wellbeing and Sustainability for the Royal Mail Group. As a member of the Mad World advisory board, Dr Davis is well-known in the UK as a keen advocate of positive mental health at work.

You may remember my interview with Dr Davis last year. We discussed the employee wellbeing programme he launched for Royal Mail employees, and he kindly shared six powerful lessons for achieving ‘First Class’ mental health at work.

Last year’s interview followed the launch of his first book, Positive Male Mind. Now, eight months on, he is preparing to launch his second book – Positive Mental Health. And so, I thought it would be nice to catch up and find out how his focus has shifted, and what we can take from this as business and HR leaders.

Mental health is multidimensional

When Dr Davis wrote Positive Male Mind, he focused on a topic very close to his heart – the tendency for men to bottle up mental illness, and refuse to seek help. But while the book certainly helped many people in this situation, Dr Davis felt he also needed to tackle the more general topic of positive mental health.

“A lot of people enjoyed the first book, but wanted something that applied more to them” he explains. “My next book is more multidimensional. It looks at everything from financial wellbeing, to LGBT issues – and how all of this can influence a person’s mental health.”

Dr Davis will be talking about the idea of multidimensional mental health at Mad World 2019 this October. But what does multidimensional mental health actually mean?

To understand mental health, you have to peel back the layers

Dr Davis tells me that we have a tendency to talk about ‘mental health’ as a standalone topic. But in actual fact, in order to understand mental health, we have to look at all of the factors that contribute to it.

“Mental health is not this isolated thing” he says. “It’s connected with everything else in our life! At its most basic, we have sleep, diet, hydration, exercise. These are the building blocks that build up to a more mentally strong individual, and if you are lacking in these areas, then your mental health will also be suffering.”

Dr Davis says that in order to understand a person’s mental health, we must first understand them as a person. And that means peeling back the layers, to see what makes them who they are.

How well do you know the people you employ?

In a work setting, it is easy to forget the importance of getting to know the people we work with. And I wouldn’t blame you for slipping into the habit of seeing employees through only the lens of the job role they perform – customer service agent, cashier, chef, you name it.

But actually, if you want a workforce that is powered by positive mental health, you need to get to know the people you employ.

“Remember that the people who are at work, are people” says Dr Davis. “They might have a job role, they might be a postman, they might be a manager – but that’s not necessarily who they are. You must start by keeping who they are, separate from what they do.”

Separating “who they are” from “what they do” for mental resilience

It can be a challenge to see a person as a person, instead of as a colleague or employee. Especially when our interactions with them are almost always work-related.

But you can make progress by taking time to talk to people as individuals. It also helps to follow Cary Cooper’s advice, and to make sure you have line managers with the right people skills in place.

Once you know your employees better, you can begin to look at each person’s life, and ask questions such as: Is this person getting everything they personally need, in order to be mentally healthy and resilient?

You may find that you learn things about people. Things that help you take small actions, which make a big difference in their lives. For example, your bookkeeper, Gareth, might actually be the father to a budding footballer. And while his job is inputting numbers, the reality is that in order to be happy, he wants to watch his daughter play football every Friday. And you might be able to facilitate that, simply by giving him a work from home day once a week.

It’s often the small things that count. And if you can tap into what’s important in a person’s life, you can help them be a happier person. And when you are facilitating happier people, you are normally also facilitating more mentally resilient employees.

When what they do is part of who they are

However, what you must be very careful of, is that for some people, their “what they do” makes up a huge part of who they are. And you might find yourself having to re-connect the two, once you’ve separated them.

“Some people self-identify with their job very strongly” explains Dr Davis. “For example, myself. You can’t put a piece of paper between my job and me!”

Dr Davis says that if you have an employee who sees their job as just a job, then that’s fine. But for many, you must realise that jobs are an active part of who they are.

Do not engage in fire-play with a person’s livelihood

There is an outdated, yet still prevalent, method of management. This relies on using fear, intimidation and humiliation, to increase performance.  It’s the stick, not the carrot. And it can be hugely damaging to a person’s positive mental health. Especially when their job is a huge part of who they are.

“For somebody who self-identifies with their job, the idea of losing that job can have enormous mental health implications” explains Dr Davis. “A person who only sees their job as a means to an end might be more able to put up with the idea of losing their job, as they are more likely to see it as replaceable. But for somebody who sees their job as a big part of who they are, then working in an environment where there is constant fear of job loss, their mental health will take a huge hit.” 

Of course, if you’re operating a business where fear and intimidation are major factors, then it’s unlikely you’ll have many employees who care about their job anyway.

You can meet Dr Shaun Davis at Mad World 2019

Dr Shaun Davis will be at Mad World again this year, talking about positive mental health. I will also be attending Mad World again this year, so that I can report back on what the leading thinkers on mental health are advising for business leaders and HR. Mad World 2019 kicks off on 9th October. If you want to hear what Dr Davis has to say about positive mental health, then you can find more information and get your tickets here

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