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Training Managers For Self-Care and
Peer Support: The SFA Framework

A silhouette of a person and a thermometer mark the stress levels, which range from healthy to reacting, injured, and ill.
Hacking HR Team

Posted on May 10, 2024

We are undergoing a mental health crisis, and the imperative for effective workplace stress management strategies has never been more apparent.

According to surveys and reports from organizations like the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 90% of the public perceives a mental health crisis in the United States, with significant portions of adults reporting persistent anxiety.

Stress, depression, and anxiety are responsible for about half of all work-related ill-health cases and a corresponding 54% of all working days lost in the UK. This highlights not only the prevalence of mental health challenges but also the substantial impact they have on workplace productivity and individual well-being.

Why Managers Need Training in Mental Health

The statistics reveal the need for mental health training for managers, as they oversee not just the operational but also the emotional and psychological welfare of teams. When equipped with adequate training, managers can better identify their own stress points and employ coping strategies. This self-awareness and self-regulation prevent burnout and model healthy coping mechanisms for their teams. Additionally, trained managers are better positioned to recognize signs of stress in employees early, which is critical in preventing minor stress reactions from escalating into more severe health issues.

The Stress First Aid (SFA) Framework

Among the training resources for managers, the Stress First Aid (SFA) framework emerges as a vital toolkit to help them self-care and support their teams. The SFA was designed to support high-stress professions like first responders and healthcare workers. Its primary goal is to nurture resilience, facilitate recovery, and promote growth.

The SFA model provides a systematic approach to managing stress effectively across a spectrum of reactions, from normal to severe. Understanding the nuances of the SFA model enables managers to act swiftly and compassionately, offering targeted support.

Understanding the Stress Continuum

The SFA framework provides a clear guideline to assess responses to stress, which can be:

  • Healthy: Normal stress responses where resilience is maintained.

  • Reacting: Temporary, mild stress responses (like irritability, anxiety, or sleep disturbances) that generally resolve without intervention.

  • Injured: More severe, persistent stress responses that may manifest as pronounced anxiety, depression, or traumatic stress reactions. These stress reactions require active interventions like peer support or professional counseling.

  • Ill: Involves severe stress reactions indicative of mental health disorders, requiring professional intervention.

A Stress First Aid infographic depicting the emotional state of firefighters and emergency personnel from stage 1 (Healthy) to 5 (Ill)

The COVER Protocol

At the heart of the SFA model lies the COVER protocol, a set of strategic actions designed to intervene at each stage of the stress continuum to support individuals and promote recovery. This protocol helps to detect stress early so that measures are taken before the individual reaches more severe stages.

  1. Check: Recognizing early signs of stress.

  2. Observe: Monitoring changes in behavior, thought patterns, or mood.

  3. Voice: Opening conversations on these changes.

  4. Extend: Offering support, ranging from empathetic listening and simple acts of kindness to facilitating professional interventions.

  5. Refer: Guiding employees to professional mental health resources when necessary.

How Managers Can Implement the COVER Protocol

Here are some actionable strategies for managers to implement the COVER protocol in their daily management routines:

1. Check: Recognizing Early Signs of Stress

  • Regular Check-ins: Begin weekly team meetings with a brief check-in that allows each member to share their feelings or any challenges they face. For example, start the meeting with, "How are you feeling this week on a scale from 1-10?" or "Is there anything on your mind that’s impacting your work or well-being?"

  • 1:1 Meetings: Schedule regular one-on-one meetings that focus on well-being. These meetings should combine discussions about workload with questions about stress levels and overall mental health. Managers might ask, "How are you managing the current project load?" and, "How can I support you better?"

2. Observe: Monitoring Changes in Behavior or Mood

  • Mindful Observation: Keep a discreet, non-intrusive eye on changes such as decreased social interaction, changes in work quality, or shifts in punctuality. Make notes to track if these changes are persistent.

  • Create a Safe Environment: Encourage an open dialogue culture by sharing experiences and strategies for managing stress during team meetings. Normalizing these conversations makes individuals more comfortable discussing their feelings.

3. Voice: Opening Dialogues About Observed Changes

  • Start Conversations with Kindness: A manager might say, "I've noticed you've seemed quieter than usual in meetings, and I want to check in to see if you're okay or if there’s something we can do to support you."

  • Empathetic Communication: Train managers on how to discuss mental health tactfully, emphasizing the importance of listening, validating feelings, and maintaining confidentiality.

4. Extend: Providing Adequate Support

  • Resource Availability: Be prepared with information on workplace wellness programs, mental health days, and external counseling services. Share these resources proactively.

  • Supportive Actions: Offer practical support adjustments, such as a quiet room for breaks, deadline flexibility, or the option to telecommute. For instance, a manager could say, "If you're feeling overwhelmed, would adjusting the project deadline help? Or perhaps working from home for a few days?"

5. Refer: Guiding to Professional Mental Health Resources

  • Professional Partnerships: Establish a list of trusted mental health professionals and services, and understand the steps employees need to take to access these services.

  • Encourage Professional Help: Normalize seeking help by discussing it openly in team settings or training. A manager could share, "If anyone feels they need support beyond what we can provide here, we have resources and professionals who specialize in helping. It’s a sign of strength to seek help when needed."

Implementing COVER Through Everyday Management

Managers can further support these specific actions by embedding mental health awareness into daily operations:

  1. Lead by Example: Publicly participate in wellness activities and be open about personal experiences with managing stress.

  2. Promote a Balanced Lifestyle: Encourage employees to take full lunch breaks, leave work on time, and use their vacation days to recharge.

  3. Training and Workshops: Facilitate regular stress management, mindfulness, and emotional resilience workshops.

  4. Feedback Mechanism: Use anonymous surveys to gather feedback on the team’s stress levels and suggestions for improving workplace mental health initiatives.

  5. Mental Health Days: Advocate for and implement mental health days, explaining their importance, such as sick days for physical health.

Using these detailed, practical steps, managers can effectively utilize the COVER protocol to manage workplace stress and promote a supportive and resilient team environment.

Key Insights

  • For HR professionals and organizational leaders, integrating the SFA model into workplace culture is a proactive measure to combat stress.

  • Training leaders and managers in the principles of SFA equips them with the tools to recognize early signs of stress among employees and provide the necessary peer support and intervention. This approach is critical in maintaining a healthy workforce and can significantly reduce the incidence of stress-related issues within an organization.

  • The COVER framework encourages open communication about mental well-being, ensuring employees feel supported and valued. Organizations can enhance overall productivity and employee satisfaction by fostering an environment where people are comfortable seeking help and discussing their mental health.

Join the Hacking HR May Series: "Everything About Wellbeing and Mental Health At Work."

May is Mental Health Awareness month.

The Hacking HR May Series, "Everything About Well-being and Mental Health at Work" aims to redefine the narrative around mental health in the workplace, shattering stigmas and fostering open conversations. Through a diverse array of sessions, attendes will explore the connection between mental health, productivity and organizational success, uncovering the tangible benefits of prioritizing employee wellbeing.

Click here to learn more and register at no cost!

Flyer of the Hacking HR May Series, "Everything About Well-being and Mental Health At Work."

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