Recently I ran a training session for a large group of people. We worked on an exercise about supporting a colleague with a mental health issue in the workplace. The overwhelming expectation was for the person in distress to reach out to their manager.
I asked: ‘How many of you would feel able to approach your manager about a mental health problem?’ No one raised their hand. I then asked ‘How many of you would be able to talk to a family member about a mental health problem?’ There was silence in the room, no one raised their hand and many shook their heads.
What are organisations doing to develop an environment where people can ask for help?
Mental health remains highly stigmatised in societies around the world. In some communities people with mental health issues are hidden away and prevented from accessing care due to shame. In others, those who are badly affected by their journey to recovery, loose the support of loved ones and friends along the way – compounding their isolation and prolonging their period of recovery. It also leaves them susceptible to exploitation and substance abuse in their attempts to deal with their situation on their own. In fact, the continual cuts to mental health support in many societies has further exacerbated the problem.
Unfortunately, the majority of organisations are ineffective in implementing measures and initiatives to enable people to talk about mental health issues, explore prejudices, support one another and break down barriers to communication. Very few organisations have adequate policies that directly address mental health – this is problematic given that the majority of people will have a mental health issue at some point in their lives.
The core of the issue is that few organisations are looking at breaking down the historic barriers to talking about mental health, even though a sizeable proportion of the workforce will find mental health issues exacerbated by the workplace environment – often this is due to stress and working with colleagues with low emotional intelligence.
The majority of organisations tend to run one-off initiatives at a particular time of year – these are not sustained.
In the long-term, the cost to organisations is substantial in the form of high staff turnover, sickness absence, a fall in productivity, poor communication in teams and much more. The cost to the person is even greater given the impact that the lack of support has on their home life, on their loved ones and on their personal development.
People are central to what an organisation is and what it does – why is mental health awareness not considered critical to operational excellence? In fact, because mental health issues tend to be invisible, most organisations attribute employee issues to something else entirely. Employee data does not even begin to capture the scale of the problem. This shows lack of insight and is expensive to the organisation.
I believe that workshops, personal stories, regular drop-ins (confidential) for staff, checking how managers deal with mental health issues, strong policy statements and signifiers are needed to break down the barriers and create healthy cultures. At the end of the day, employers have a legal and moral responsibility to ensure that staff work in an environment that is safe (mentally and physically) and that they provide adequate support and awareness.
Mental Health at Work is a new resource curated by Mind and supported by the Royal Foundation. The website has toolkits, opinion pieces and other resources that people can use throughout the year to think about improving mental health in the workplace and supporting those with mental health issues.