On Mental Health as a Manager

People· 4min

October 24, 2022

I’m in the very privileged position of having a work environment which fosters personal growth. A generous budget combined with paid learning days provides opportunities which would otherwise be impossible. So, given I stepped into a management position 18 months ago, these resources should clearly be dedicated to management courses - right? Project management, promoting synergy, reading social cues to manipulate your team into productivity. These are the skills you need to thrive as a manager by corporate standards, and we work with really big banks so it’s a no brainer.

Don’t worry, what you’re currently thinking is correct: that’s complete nonsense.

Yes, we have to care about timelines, deadlines, capacity, velocity, and everything else which keeps a project moving forward. I know this is a bit of a hot take in the management world but messing those things up is low-risk. You missed the deadline, the customer is angry... so what? It’s not the end of the world; the sun is still going to rise tomorrow. But then what should we be focusing on as managers? In my opinion this is quite obvious: as managers of people, we should be focusing on people skills rather than management skills.

Let me capture a little bit of that journey - hopefully it inspires you to do the same.

Mental Health First Aid

When I took my first steps into management, my biggest fear was not being able to help my team with the mental wellbeing issues which plague the engineering world: stress, anxiety, and burnout. While it’s important to remember that a manager is not solely responsible for the mental wellbeing of their team, you cannot avoid the fact that managers often have the most insight into an individual’s life. You are, through one-to-ones and daily interactions, perfectly positioned to notice the warning signs of poor mental wellbeing. In addition to that, you are likely to be the first port of call for any employee who needs to voice their problems (be those personal or professional).

Are you ready to handle those situations? I wasn’t.

My first goal was to give myself the skillset required to deal with a team member in crisis. Your team looks to you not for micromanagement and deadlines, but for guidance and support. Technical guidance is easy, translating product requirements takes time, but providing emotional support requires care. When someone is in crisis you need to handle the situation correctly; a misplaced comment or a bad assumption can turn an individual’s situation from bad to worse. Becoming a certified Mental Health First Aider (MHFA), if nothing else, gives you concrete evidence that you have this skillset.

Understanding Mental Health

So you’re a people manager with an MHFA qualification. You can help to triage a team member’s emotional crisis. That’s fantastic, but there’s no ignoring the fact that this individual fell into crisis in your charge. Please don’t get me wrong; by no means am I suggesting that you can protect your team members from poor mental health in all cases. However, it goes without saying that it is your responsibility as their leader to safeguard them from the professional factors which can contribute to a crisis.

The next step for me was to build a deeper understanding of how the human mind works. This ranged from the factors which affect wellbeing to the long-term treatment of diagnosed mental health conditions. Unfortunately, this is not something you can learn from a two-day workshop. The only option is real study.

I set myself the goal of achieving a college certificate related to mental health, and the course I settled on was Understanding Mental Health (Level 3). This provided a strong foundation of mental wellbeing awareness, an overview of the most prevalent mental health conditions in today’s society, and a deep dive into the support systems, treatment plans, and interventions which exist to combat these conditions.

The outcome? I now feel confident that I can identify the early warning signs of poor mental wellbeing - and that I can empathise with an individual who is undergoing treatment for such a condition.

What’s next?

Unfortunately, I don’t yet know my next step on this learning journey. The only way to really solidify all of this knowledge is to apply it in the real world, and of course I hope that this never happens. Perhaps you have a good suggestion for me here? I would love to hear your thoughts on what forms of personal growth have worked well for you as a people manager - so please reach out!

Written by

Brendan Devenney
Brendan Devenney Lead Software Engineer

Brendan is a software engineer with a history of defensive programming in high-value environments. He has had an eclectic career path from embedded software instrumentation and performance engineering, through API security and cloud platform architecture, to building the future of banking.