Mental health at work: How to avoid breaking point

by Karen Gately07 Sep 2016
When Andreas Lubitz intentionally flew a Germanwings Airbus A320 into the French Alps, 150 lives were lost. 
In a press conference, Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr confirmed that Lubitz had taken several months off work without disclosing why, but said he was considered mentally and physically fit to fly. 
Knowing what we know now, it is clear Lufthansa missed the cues that were most likely there. 
Even though Lubitz completed the psychological tests required to begin training and regular physical examinations, his employer failed to see the mental state he was in and the serious risk he posed to himself and others. 
The story that has come to light since the tragic events unfolded is of a young man struggling to deal with the breakdown of his relationship, deteriorating eyesight that posed a very real threat to his career, and a long history of mental illness. 
Lubitz was struggling to hold on to what he loved and was frightened about what the future held for him. Desperate to hang on to the remnants of hope that remained, Lubitz was a man on the edge with apparently little support around him. 
To understand what happened and what steps can be taken to avoid it happening again, everyone at Lufthansa needs to reflect on the extent to which the organisation’s culture, work conditions and approaches taken to managing health and safety contributed to this disaster. 
What we can all take from these events is a stark reminder that influencing the mental health and wellbeing of people at work is all of our responsibility. We all need to:
Connect: Get to know people and spend time talking to them. Build trust and respectful relationships that will allow people to talk to you when they are struggling.
Care: Look out for your mates at work and if in doubt ask them if they are OK.  Show people that you will stand by them and help in whatever ways you can. 
Moreover, employers need to:
Manage culture:  Create a respectful and compassionate workplace culture that inspires people to look after themselves and one another.  Hold yourself and others accountable for behaving with respect and kindness.  
Educate: Help people to understand the signs of mental illness to look for in themselves and others. Provide information about support resources available to them.
Give: Allow people the time and flexibility to access the support they need.  Have patience and do what can be reasonably expected to guide people through tough times. 
Focus: Draw attention to the impact mental illness has on individuals, teams and your business as a whole. Make mental health and wellbeing matter and take proactive steps to have a positive influence. 
Act: Take decisive steps to respond to troubling signs of mental illness among members of your workforce. Work closely with people to ensure they take responsibility for accessing the help they need. 

Karen Gately is a leadership and people-management specialist and a founder of Ryan Gately, a specialist HR consultancy practice. She is also the author of The People Manager’s Toolkit: A Practical guide to getting the best from people and The Corporate Dojo: Driving extraordinary results through spirited people.