Our primary advice for managers might surprise you: Put your own oxygen mask on first!

Over the last several months, we have increasingly heard from managers who have noticed an increase in the number of people in their team who are struggling.

It’s not surprising when we consider the impact on our lives and work of the Covid-19 situation and the extent to which we’ve all had to adapt over and over, and are continually having to pay attention to elements of our life that previously required little thought.

Advice for managers - Put your own oxygen mask on first

Because, from a brain-science perspective, our brain interprets all change initially as a threat, when we are forced to adapt over and over again and to operate in an enhanced state of alert, it’s very taxing on our brain and this can increase our level of anxiety which will inevitably have some impact on our mental health.

Never has it been more important for us to focus on our wellbeing than now, and for managers, this presents an additional challenge of not only managing their own wellbeing, but also that of the people in their team.

Support for Managers

Many of these managers openly admitted that they did not feel confident and/or competent in supporting those members of their team who were struggling with their mental health.  They also expressed interest in increasing their knowledge and skills to ensure that they are doing everything they can to enable their team members and colleagues to maintain positive wellbeing, both at work and at home.

In response, we have been facilitating ‘Mental Health Conversations for Managers’ online workshops recently where we recap on how to maintain positive mental health, how to spot the signs of compromised mental health and how to build confidence around mental health conversations, so that managers feel able to better support the mental health of their team.

During these sessions, there are two things that we give to managers to support them in their role and the first one is often a surprise.

1) Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First

I’m sure you may have heard this analogy before now and if you haven’t, you’ll certainly have heard the advice “put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others” when travelling on a plane!

The reason for this is that whilst it might be our instinctive approach to prioritise the safety of those that we perceive we are responsible for, the reality is that often this approach can impede our ability in the long term to serve them well.  We are only ever truly able to help others when we have excess energy, or time and we don’t have either of these things when we ourselves are depleted.

The truth is, putting your own oxygen mask on first is exactly how we look after others.

So, we encourage managers to prioritise their own mental health and wellbeing as a means of supporting their team members. 

This includes prioritising emptying their stress bucket and prioritising their own self-care by applying the three Principles of Positivity.

By prioritising these things managers are able to reduce their own levels of cortisol (our stress hormone) and increase their own levels of Happy Hormones, and this in turn will enhance their mental resilience and subsequently their personal performance as a manager.

An additional benefit is that managers who demonstrate putting their own oxygen mask on first lead by example.

They convey the message to their team that looking after one’s own mental health is not just an accepted, but an encouraged aspect of performing at work.

And when people are taking responsibility for their own mental wellbeing this should consequently mean that they require less support from their manager. 

2) The Manager’s Toolkit

Once managers have their own oxygen mask on, they are better equipped to help others cognitively, emotionally, physically, and psychologically.  However, some practical tools can also be useful, and this is where our Manager’s Toolkit comes in.

One of the key elements of our Manager’s Toolkit is the Wellness Action Plan (WAP).

What is it?

A WAP is a personalised self-management tool that enables people to take responsibility for their own mental health. The intention behind this tool is one of prevention, so it makes sense for everyone to have one , even if they are in positive mental health.

Wellness Action Plan

Managers can encourage their team to create their own WAP by giving them a framework to do so.

Key areas to incorporate in a WAP might include:

• Workplace stressors and symptoms to look out for
• Support they might need from colleagues or managers
• Action to take if they do experience compromised mental health
• What enables them to be in positive mental health
• What the work environment looks like when it is enable positive mental health for them

As well as being a valuable tool for people to take responsibility for their own mental wellbeing, it can also encourage open dialogue between a manager and their team member, which in itself can help to reduce the potential for mental health related issues. And, of course, if someone does experience compromised mental health in the future, the WAP can enable that conversation for the individual to ask for help or for the manager to offer support.

Interestingly, when we ask, at the end of each of our Mental Health Conversations workshops, what one thing they are going to do differently based on what they’ve learnt, the most frequent answer is: “I’m going to implement Wellness Action Plans in my team”.

In Summary

We believe that it is vital for managers to be able to prioritise their mental wellbeing at work so that they are both able to encourage their team to do the same and have sufficient capacity to support members of their team when they are struggling.

Managers also need a toolkit that enables them to confidently initiate those conversations around mental health in the workplace.

Are managers in your organisation supported to put their own oxygen mask on first?
To discuss how we can support your managers to better support your people, get in touch.

And if you would like to use our WAP Template to incorporate Wellness Action Plans into your 1-2-1’s, complete the form below and we will send it to you with our compliments.


Visit the HSE website for current news about mental health.

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