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Suzy McCormick: Why people, and not just policy, can make a difference to workplace mental health

Wednesday 19 September 2018

Suzy McCormick discusses how people not just policy can make a difference to workplace mental health

Suzy McCormick

Suzy McCormick

Suzy McCormick, Lead Consultant for Mental Health and Attendance Management at the Civil Service, based at Cabinet Office.




There is a quote that does the rounds every so often on social media; how 'helping one person might not change the world, but it could change the world for one person'. It is often accompanied by a little image of a person emerging from a tunnel and someone offering a helping hand. For me, that image captures how it feels to claw your way out of the dark tunnel of poor mental health - and the difference that can be made by a supporting hand.

We know enough about mental health now to understand that often, it isn't just one thing that helps. Everyone is different, but usually it's a combination that might include: sleep, diet, exercise, medication, talking therapy and positive social connections. Importantly, having a positive experience in the workplace is also vital.

When we look at Acas' new Framework for Positive Mental Health at Work, Acas have highlighted the fundamental roles played by the manager, employer and the individual concerned. Employers provide the policies and procedures that frame how we as individuals operate in the workplace. The manager brings those policies to life and establishes the cultural tone of an organisation through the everyday interactions they have with their staff, the decisions they make, and the support they offer.

Early in 2018 wrote about research carried out by Facebook that looked at the reasons their staff quit their jobs. The HR team at Facebook found that their people weren't necessarily quitting because of their manager (the old adage being that people don't leave their jobs, they leave their boss) - but because of the way their job was designed - whether that was what / how / how much they were being asked to do. However, on standing back, that loop goes full circle to the manager; the manager more often than not has the power to design a job that gets the most out of an individual and in doing so, can actively promote and protect the mental health of their staff.

In the workplace, good mental health management is broader than reactive support to an individual with mental ill health. It's about recognising that every single one of us has mental health and it's also about understanding that what and how managers do things can have a direct impact on staff wellbeing.

In the Civil Service we believe that managers need to be empowered to identify and talk about their own mental health needs before they can start to properly support others. Our aim is to be a leading employer on mental health and the most inclusive employer by 2020. We regard the behaviour of our managers as key to establishing a culture of positive mental health, where everyone is encouraged to thrive and flourish.

To get there requires everyone to play their part - and for managers and colleagues to offer a supporting hand when, and where, it is needed most.

Six management tips for good mental health:

  • Find out what your staff enjoy, what their strengths are, what their priorities are in terms of their personal lives and work with them to apply that to the job and outcomes that need to be achieved. Ask what support they need to thrive at work.
  • Have regular 1-2-1s with your staff. Put the person first in meetings and then follow up with the work.
  • Don't wait for 1-2-1s to check in with your staff. Find out how they are. Celebrate the good times (such as birthdays and family weddings) and offer support for the harder times (such as deaths, divorces and bereavements).
  • Don't worry if your 'How are you?' is met by a less than engaged response. Stick with it so it becomes the norm and try varying the question to keep it genuine.
  • Be familiar with the range of policies and support your employer makes available to your staff then use your common sense and discretion to work with the individual to agree the best way forward.
  • Be mindful that the decisions you make about work and how you communicate them can directly impact on the wellbeing of your employees. Think about your communication style and where possible engage staff in decisions about their work E.g. 'I'd welcome your ideas on how we can clear this backlog / How can we best improve the customer experience?' / 'What do you feel about the business plan?'

To find out more about what the Civil Service as an employer is doing to support mental health, check out their blog pages on or follow @UKCivil Service

The Acas Framework for Positive Mental Health at Work will be formerly launched at the Acas Midlands Conference on 25th September.

1 Comment

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  • Posted by Beverley 9South West)  |  24 September 2018, 2:16PM
    What an excellent blog! Informative, helpful and most of all in a FRIENDLY language format. Thank you.