Confessions of a benefits manager: Candid considers mental health at work


We’ve hired a new senior director of mental health, but I’m not sure how that makes me feel. On the one hand, mental health is a hot topic and it is good to see my organisation giving it due importance. But equally, hiring someone could just be a way to give that impression. Things tend to work that way round here – form over substance. Indeed, one of the ways I personally maintain mental health is to assume all matters to come out of the Higher Beings, our executive team, are dark and manipulative. In that way I am never surprised or disappointed, no matter how nasty it gets.

Melanie, the new senior director of mental health, looks like she has just been let out of psychiatric care. She has mad, dishevelled hair (particularly for an American), and staring eyes that never seem to blink. Her clothes are a bit batty too; she seems to favour paisley and cardigans buttoned up incorrectly. I wonder what drew her to this particular career?

Employee assistance programmes

The first thing Melanie does is roll out an awareness programme. All good, except for some crazy reason, the Higher Beings have decided that mental health falls under benefits, which means I get to push this training out in Europe. Uff.  My team does manage the employee assistance programme (EAP), but that doesn’t make us local mental health nurses. And, it is not as if we even got to select the EAP; it was thrust upon us by the United States and I can tell you it is rubbish. I have tested the call centre and all that you get is some idiot telling you to ring various other numbers based on your complaint. Frankly, Dr Google would have got me to the same result faster.

Change for the better

Luckily, Melanie is looking into the EAP too, so at least we might get the option to change to a better provider out of all this. In addition, she has introduced a new whistle-blowing platform. This is an application that allows employees to give anonymous feedback on any manager or colleague. This naming and shaming could actually transform our culture, if it weren’t for two things. Firstly, even if the majority of employees raised a common issue, I don’t believe the Higher Beings would take any action, beyond appointing a senior director for whatever-it-was. Secondly, since I discovered employees had been individually identified in the so-called ‘anonymous’ employee engagement survey, I’m not sure I’d risk sharing anything contentious. We live in fear.

Of course, Melenie’s mental health initiative is a hugely worthwhile programme, and I find myself swept away in a rush of enthusiasm to make the company a better place: where anxiety, stress and depression can be faced without stigma. However, although the programme spells out that employers have a duty to address bullying and discriminatory behaviours relating to mental health just as much as for gender, sexual orientation, race or faith/belief, I know that most bullying and discriminatory behaviours around here are carried out by the senior management team themselves. As yet, no employee has called the management out in a hashtag movement, but it could easily happen. Maybe the new application will open the door.


The training sets out to ‘lead the development of compassionate and effective line management relationships, by teaching active listening and helping managers to better support those in need’. It’s like being told there is a unicorn in the building. Indeed, I am sad to note that none of the real bullies have turned up for the training. It is supposed to be mandatory, but the senior team can always find ways to exclude themselves from such things. I notice that even the locally appointed ‘champion’ for mental health issues has been called away to an important meeting. What does that tell you?

The policy states that managers should look to make reasonable working adjustments for staff in distress, which might include flexible working or phased return to work after absence. Again, I worry. We had a brief foray into agile working when the Higher Beings discovered how much office space costs per head, but since then they have gone back to their old ways; we are only considered to be working if we are seen to be.

Spotting the signs

The new programme teaches us to look out for signs of mental health issues. Warning signs include looking tired or drained, and a tendency to isolate, avoiding colleagues. Someone might procrastinate more and appear distracted. All of these descriptions could easily apply to me. I take a look at myself in the mirror in the toilets. I look drawn and haggard. A bit deranged even?

We learn how to spot signs of a mental health problem in a colleague – they may become chaotic, intruding into others’ conversations, prone to outbursts of anger or emotion, along with absences from work. That’s Big Bad Boss. He even ticks the ‘not looking after their appearance’ box since he’s been wearing those awful pink trousers on Fridays. The man is in a state, I tell you.

We are told that issues may come to light during a performance appraisal – performance may be subtly (or overtly) under expectations. So, it seems my colleague Lazy Susan may have been suffering in silence for years. Other signs might be appearing to have not slept enough or perhaps drinking more in the evening, so it looks like the whole of the IT department are at risk. In fact, I am struggling to find anyone in the office who isn’t exhibiting some level of disorder.

Melanie says ‘a toxic work environment can be corrosive to our collective mental health’. I can see that.

Next time… Candid notices how mobility programmes have changed.