5 myths about confronting mental health at work, debunked
There exists a culture of silence around mental health in the UK, particularly in the place we spend most of our time, at work. Perhaps this is especially true for men, who are three times less likely to seek help than women according to a survey carried out by the Mental Health Foundation.
Being practising psychotherapists in London we often see clients that are ashamed of feeling low. Exhaustion, stress, daily battling through a hostile environment, unattainable targets causing feelings of failure. These issues are on top of the daily pressures of home life. Family issues, finances, relationship issues sometimes even loneliness or isolation in the home environment.
Very often the pressures of home and work life intertwine. One affects the other.
People fear that sharing such feelings with colleagues or managers at work could lead to reputational damage and reduced career prospects, so they suffer in silence, perhaps turning to alcohol, drugs, ‘workaholism’ or aggressive exercise as a distraction.
What seems clear about the issues that people are facing about their work-life is that mental health pays no respect to status within an organisation, salary level, race, gender or sexual preference. It can and most likely will at some point in our lives affect us all. So let’s confront some of the myths that might be holding you back from a happier more balanced working life.
- If I talk with my colleagues I will be judged as weak and it will affect my career prospects
When someone confides in you about their lives, their struggle. What happens to you? Do you walk away and think of that person as weak? No, probably not. In actual fact, we tend to admire those who can confront the realities and struggles of life in the face of social taboos. Take António Horta-Osório the CEO of Lloyds Bank who requested a temporary leave of absence due to stress and overwork. The financial world gasped. However, he returned to his post and is now himself one of Britain’s leading voices when it comes to better mental health provision in the workplace.
‘Some employers have understood that having a mental health condition is something that can and does get better, the best employers can see beyond a label or diagnosis to get the best from people’ (CIPD & MIND 2018, People Managers Guide to Mental Health)
We should acknowledge that the first step you might take in sharing something might be in a confidential space. Many companies offer an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) which offers a free at point of access Counselling and Psychotherapy service for a fixed number of sessions. If they don’t there are also a number of free and low-cost services offered by mental health charities like Mind or The Samaritans as well or other private options that might be covered by your companies Private Health Insurance scheme.
It is true that ‘an individual can have a serious mental health problem but – with the right support – can still be thriving at work’ (Stevenson and Farmer 2017).
- I’ve not experienced any mental health issues, it’s not something that has happened to me or anyone close to me so I’m not that concerned
The chances are that you or someone close to you will experience a mental health issue even if you personally do not. The mental health charity Mind estimates about 1 in 4 will experience a mental health issue each year. Even if you don’t have a mental health issue, the knock-on effect of untreated mental illness can be profound if it occurs in your family system. To be a trusted leader in the work environment, a skilful, empathetic, passionate about people person, one must have an understanding of how mental health affects us all. Being able to spot the signs and signpost colleagues towards help are useful skills to have in your toolkit.
- What’s all the fuss about?
Stress in the workplace, especially in such competitive environments plays a huge role. Poor mental health is now the number one cause of long-term sickness absence (four weeks or longer) across the UK workforce, while stress is the third top cause (CIPD 2018). Whilst these are interesting statistics, the fuss is about striving for a happier working culture and finding ways to give people who are struggling, sometimes just the opportunity to survive what they’re going through. We argue in favour of a moral obligation for us all to increase our vigilance of our fellow colleagues.
- As an employer, if I confront mental health head-on won’t I open a Pandora’s Box?
What’s in the box? The impact of not prioritising good mental health practices are now more easily seen in an organisation than ever before. Low retention rates, high costs of retraining, absenteeism, presenteeism at best. That is what is in the box. It’s already on show. Issues like these embed themselves in the organisation but somehow doing something about it might be too difficult to confront. Not least as it often requires a cultural shift at the top of the company. What people are experiencing in their lives is already going on for them. There are very few things that are better left unspoken. Indeed, the opportunity and space to discuss whatever one might be experiencing is an unblocking experience that leads to greater clarity, planning and action. If you are a leader, a manager or a CEO, give your staff permission to speak up.
- Taking a day off sick for a mental health issue is a red flag for my manager
Mental health issues are often no different from physical health issues. With time, treatment and rest people re-cover. In our clinic, we’ve seen many 100’s of clients return to work feeling regenerated and refreshed. A people-focused manager should work to create a culture of openness, where employees feel encouraged to speak about mental health issues in parallel to their positive commitment to their role. Such discussions needn’t be restricted to hushed conversations in meeting rooms or manager’s offices unless that’s what someone wants.
We need companies and leaders to give more explicit, vocal permission to employees to work on their mental health.
Robert Rees and Elliot Davis are Directors of The Grove Practice in London. They are Psychotherapists and Executive Coaches and co-founded of The Grove Practice At Work an organisation committed to bringing good mental health to the workplace. Click here to learn more.