TIME TO TALK ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH
Attitudes towards mental health have improved dramatically over the last few years. In particular lock-down during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 had a knock on impact on the mental health of many people across the country. Whilst an increase in cases of poor mental health is in itself undesirable, it has made it less of a taboo topic of conversation. Friends have learned to ‘ask twice’ and workplaces realise that they need to do more to support their employees. Policies to promote mental health are being created at the corporate level; Mental Health First Aiders are being trained and appointed, Wellbeing Hubs are popping up and Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) are commonplace – which often feature free counselling and access to GP services.
Mental health topics are creeping in to the office vernacular. Mental Heath days are being ‘celebrated’ such as free cakes on ‘time to talk day’; the ‘Action for happiness‘ calendar is popping up in monthly emails and sometimes as desktop backgrounds; mental health is now acceptable as a ‘Safety moment’ at the start of meetings.
This is incredible progress but let’s not forget – companies aren’t doing this purely out of kindness; lost work days to poor mental health have been hitting the bottom line. Getting ‘mental health’ support right is not only important for profits, it matters to get the best from your workforce; it’ll reduce sick days and improve retention of your best staff who may be silently facing burn-out and considering other options.
Yet, even in a company with all of the above in place, it’s frightening how far of the mark they can land when it really matters. We caught up with Chris, one of our Lived Experience Champions who told us about the response he received from senior managers at a large corporate company when he returned to work after a prolonged period of absence due to mental health issues. He tells us where things went wrong and how easy it could have been to get right.
I’ve always been careful about who I tell about my experiences with mental health at work. I just can’t tell how people are going to react and what they’ll do with that information. But sometimes, circumstances fall outside of my control. Like a couple of years ago when stress and anxiety got the better of me and triggered a relapse. It meant I was off work for 8 months.
I returned to work well and ready to pick up from where I left off. However, no sooner had I returned, then there was a reorganisation which demoted me and left me working under someone without experience or relevant skills for the role. I wasn’t consulted; I wasn’t involved in the decision; there was no discussion.
What impact do you think this had on my mental health? Did it improve? No.
- I felt stigmatised.
- I felt judged as weak.
- I felt like I couldn’t be trusted.
I think they thought they were protecting me. They didn’t want me to fall ill again. But what they did had the opposite effect. It was a bit like being forced to roll around in a wheel chair after my broken leg had healed. A year later things didn’t improve. I didn’t get my former role back. Soon after that I chose to leave the company.
So how could this have been different? It would have been so easy to get this right. Just do exactly as you would with someone returning after physical illness:
- Start a conversation. Involve the staff member in the decision process.
- Ask what support would help them do their job. They know their job best.
- Offer up suggestions for things you think could help. Perhaps a mentor or a buddy from another team to provide support and advice. Reduced responsibilities may be right for some, but don’t assume it will be for all.
So where did it all go wrong? I wonder if there was a mixture of self stigma from the management (in which I mean “it’s never happened to me, it never will” – which I put down to a lack of personal insight rather than fact) and externalised stigma (which is how someone perceives behaviours and abilities of others that are open about their mental health). Without humility and a little insight, avoidance of the topic seems inevitable. Management didn’t want to talk to me about it.
The stigma I experienced isn’t acceptable in society; it’s certainly not acceptable among senior managers in large corporate companies.
So, next time you’re welcoming someone back to work, whether it’s after physical illness or mental illness – just ask “what can I do to help?”.
Chris’s story shows that despite incredible progress in terms of mental health support over the last few years, and in particular at his employer, it’s still the attitudes and beliefs of a small number of individuals that show there’s still a long way to go. Had Chris’s manager simply responded in the same way he would to a colleague returning to work from a physical condition then talking about the condition would not have been shied away from and an effective and tailored plan for his return to work would have been co-created for both the benefit of the individual and the organisation. It’s time to end the stigma attached to mental health; it’s time to talk about mental health; it’s time to change.