Taking a broad brush approach to employee mental health and wellbeing isn’t always the best way forward.
In a recent article for HRM, Fay Jackson, general manager of inclusion at Flourish Australia – and former deputy commissioner for the NSW Mental Health Commission – shared her story of living and working with a mental illness. She spoke about experiencing psychosis in the workplace and said that during a time like this bosses and doctors tend to suggest taking time off work, but this wouldn’t be helpful for her.
For Jackson, what helps her get through is staying at work. And to do this, she – along with many other staff at Flourish Australia – has a ‘personal action plan’ in place.
The mention of a personal action plan generated a lot of interest from our readers, sparking questions like “What is it?” and “How does it work?” So, we got back in touch with Jackson and asked her to take us through what goes into such a plan.
What the plan looks like
There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to creating these plans, and they’re not just for employees who’ve declared they experience mental health issues – they’re for anyone and everyone. Basically, instead of just have one wellbeing or flexibility policy, it’s about catering to individual needs by offering personalised plans that are created in collaboration with the employee.
At Flourish Australia, these plans are introduced as an option during the onboarding process. The employee can choose to have one or not, and they can formulate a plan at any stage in their time with the company. A template is kept on the company’s Intranet and can be downloaded at any time.
“On orientation days, the new people come in and I’ll talk about these plans because I use one myself and I know they’ve been really useful,” says Jackson.
While Jackson’s plan centres around her mental health, she says others might have a plan that outlines their caring duties or physical health requirements.
Just as everyone’s experiences are unique, so too are their personal action plans. Therefore, Jackson is speaking to her own experiences and that of those she works with when offering her advice.
“At a time when I’m feeling fragile, it spells out a clear plan of action about how to minimise any harm to me, my colleagues or to the company. That helps my wellbeing by knowing that’s there,” says Jackson.
Here are some things included in Jackson’s plan:
- Who needs to be contacted internally and externally and the phone numbers of those contacts if she’s having a mental health issue.
- What not to do. “On my plan, it says do not contact police or ambulance, but contact my husband. If people [around me] panic when I start hearing voices, they might jump to calling the ambulance as a first step, but there’s no need for that.”
- The steps corresponds with the severity of the case. For example, the initial steps are to be followed by who to call if more intervention is necessary, followed by a crisis plan if the first two points aren’t enough.
- It also contains a list of Jackson’s positive capabilities and attributes and how they can best be utilised.
This last point is a good addition to a lot of people’s plans. Jackson says that by having this information on hand, those acting as the supporters have an easy reference point when they need to reassure the individual of their strengths.
“The supporters can say ‘things might not be going perfectly at the moment, but these are the things we value about you. You will get through this and get back to utilising your wonderful strengths and capabilities’. That makes the person feel more comfortable,” says Jackson.
This list of positive attributes is more than just a way to boost spirits. The information can be utilised strategically to help things run smoothly and to ensure the individual is able to continue making a valuable contribution in the workplace.
For Jackson, her list mentions her expertise in people management, recognising where they may be issues in service delivery, diversity and inclusion and building relationships.
“Another person’s strengths might be that they’re great at report writing. But for me, if things weren’t going so well, it wouldn’t be the most optimal time to ask me to write a report on something, but I might still be able to work really well in building a relationship.”
Sharing items that could appear on someone else’s plan, Jackson mentions:
- Information on what you feel most confident about when you’re in control
- The steps a manager and colleagues can take to help someone do their best work
- The physical environment that helps you work to the best of your abilities
- The best pace for you to work at – it might have to be slower than others at times
- Certain types of technology that can help or hinder. “We’re talking on the phone today, but if I’m hearing voices and not feeling too good, it would be important for me to be having this conversation over Zoom so I could see your face and who was speaking,” she says.
The plan could also outline how you’d like the way you work to shift. The last time Jackson had to implement her plan, one of the provisions she laid out was that she wouldn’t be sending any external emails without someone else signing them off first.
If someone works in a client facing role, perhaps that might mean having a week where someone else leads any external client meetings. For someone in a senior decision-making role, it might mean having someone else step in to make the important calls for a specific period of time.
Who should be involved in the plan?
“It’s useful for the person you’re creating the plan for to be a manager. I work at an executive level, so my plan has a colleague at the same level as me, my CEO and my husband. I’ve also decided to share the plan with my direct report because I need to be responsible to her as well. She needs to feel secure in what to recognise if things start getting a bit curly, and then knows what to do and who she can confide in.”
That last point is important. While Jackson has an open door policy with the people in her plan to speak with her should they have concerns, she’s also given them permission to confide in each other if they need to.
While the specific people on the plan are Jackson’s first port of call, she notes that all staff in the organisation are supportive of one another. If anyone is feeling vulnerable and needs support, Flourish’s staff are there to help – if they’re on the plan, or not.
“None of us ignore people who are feeling vulnerable but we don’t become overly involved because this can cause concern beyond what is needed.”
Putting the plan in motion
The benefit of having plans like this embedded into the company culture is that it normalises mental health across the organisation. In her article for HRM, Jackson referred to a time where all the people on her plan were unavailable when she needed to enact it.
“I took my plan to one of my colleagues and told him that I was hearing voices, and needed his help to put the plan into motion. He did so without fluster; he was fantastic,” she said.
“This meant I could stay at work. It meant that I could still contribute and feel valuable. And it meant that I recovered much faster than I would have otherwise – in two weeks. The previous two occasions I had reached the point of hearing voices and feeling paranoid it took me two years to recover. Two years is such a long time. Two weeks is such an amazing difference.
“[Our company] has respect for those plans and respect for people who have those lived experiences.”
Implementing a plan
For HR, Jackson suggests keeping these three things in mind when helping a staff member to formulate one of these plans:
- What’s reasonable and what’s unreasonable?
“Essential duties in a job may not be able to have reasonable adjustments made to them. For example, if it’s an essential element of the role that a staff member does shift work and that staff member says they can’t work at night, that might not be reasonable as it could put hardship on other staff.”
- Is the person open to the idea?
“It’s also important to make sure the other people on the plan are prepared to support that person in the way the plan spells out.”
- Know when to hold back
“Although I’ll always need support and friendship, as we all do, I say that there will come a time where I no longer need intervention. That part says, ‘this will be the case when I’m no longer behaving in the following ways…’ Sometimes with mental health issues, people can become overly caring and they need to know when to back off and let the person working on their own.
“They need to know when to stop looking for a sign that something is going to go wrong. If a person is annoyed about something, they might just be annoyed. It may not have anything to do with a mental health issue.”
Why you should have a plan
Jackson says employers should have a campaign in the office that really builds the pride, importance and assurity around the reasons for having these plans. It needs to be clear that this isn’t about invading people’s privacy, it’s about showing the right level of support so situations can be managed as smoothly as possible and the individuals can stay in work, or return to work as soon as possible.
“When these plans are enacted, people are less likely to take time off work. There’s good research showing that people get better faster if they can stay involved in the workplace, rather than going home and being marginalised and finding it difficult to come back into the workplace.”
Having to constantly reiterate your mental health situation to new colleagues, clients, management etc. can be triggering in itself. No one wants to dredge up the things that they find difficult to manage on a weekly basis. Having a personal situation plan means staff don’t have to do this.
Plans don’t just helps individuals. They benefit employers too. It provides foundations around individual circumstances. It means there’s a back-up plan lined up if things fall down. It outlines the best people to take over should a person need to suddenly take time off work. Taking the time upfront to put a plan in place can save you lots of time down the line. And, most importantly, it shows your staff that you genuinely care about their individual wellbeing.
Organisations have an important role to play in helping staff to manage stressful situations. Ignition Training’s ‘Building Resilience’ course can set participants on the right path towards creating mentally healthy workplaces.