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Time to Talk about Mental Health

A few weeks ago we officially launched the End Stigma campaign for Surrey. One of our guests to speak on the day was Chris, an End Stigma Surrey Lived Experienced Champion.

In his talk he recognised that attitudes towards mental health have improved dramatically over the last few years. Not least because the lock-downs during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 had a knock on impact on the mental health of many people across the country.  Whilst this 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. 

Chris went on to give an example a company where great improvements have been made in recent years to promote good mental health and wellbeing. He described how new policies had been put in place, initiatives such as Mental Health First Aiders had become established, where Wellbeing Hubs had popped up and Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) – which featured free counselling and access to GP services were made available to staff. Not only this, he described a workforce where mental health topics have crept into the office vernacular. Mental Heatlh days get marked in the office with free cakes on ‘time to talk day’; the Action for Happiness Calendar is being sent round on a monthly basis; and mental health topics have become acceptable as ‘Safety Moments’ at the start of meetings.  A ‘Safety Moment’ for those not familiar with the term is traditionally a brief reflection at the start of a meeting to make note of something we can all do to help maintain the safety of ourselves or others in the office and on the Company’s clients’ sites. Here, it had become acceptable for this to now include topics related to wellbeing and mental health.

This is incredible progress but let’s not forget – companies aren’t implementing these initiatives purely out of kindness; lost work days to poor mental health hit the bottom line. Getting mental health support right is not only important for profits, but 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.

You may be thinking there’s no more to do. Put your soap box and your loud hailer away. However, being able to ‘talk-the-talk’ is one thing. Taking the right approach with individuals who have succumbed to some form of mental ill-health is more difficult. It’s more difficult because despite having all the right foundations laid, the right messaging in place and the right support from central HR functions – what matters on a day-to-day basis are the attitudes and beliefs of your individual managers. In his talk, Chris described how this was where things started to become unstuck. Here we find out what Chris had to say.

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. At the time I remember it having a desperate impact on my wellbeing. I became angry and resentful. It left me feeling weak and incapable and like I was some sort of embarrassment and couldn’t be trusted. Not good at a time when I was still a bit sensitive and trying to rebuild my confidence.

It may have been that this manager thought they were protecting me. Quite reasonably they didn’t want me to fall ill again. But what they did had the opposite effect. The most difficult bit for me was that it came to me as a ‘decision from on high’. There wasn’t any discussion about it or consideration of other support options. It was like they were frightened to talk about the topic: “ssshhh, don’t mention mental illness”. All that was needed was a simple conversation in a similar way to someone returning to work after a physical illness, such as to:

  • Start a conversation and involve me in decision process.
  • Ask me what support would help me do my job. After-all, I knew my job best
  • Offer up suggestions for things that could help but stop short of mandating them.

Perhaps a mentor or a buddy from another team to provide support and advice. Reduced responsibilities are an option and may be right for some, but it wasn’t what I wanted. I’d put the effort in to getting well and I just wanted to crack on from where I left off. I still don’t know why this didn’t happen. It seemed like such a simple and obvious thing to do. It was all that was needed to co-create an effective and tailored plan for my return to work would have benefitted both me and the organisation. I think it was simply a lack of insight and understanding by the manager of mental health issues and how they affect people. That they simply hadn’t taken the time to get ‘on-board’ with the broader and much more enlightened attitudes towards mental health and wellbeing that had been adopted in recent years by the company. 

Overall, the company had been good to me in providing support for my wellbeing and mental health over the years, so I don’t want to be overly critical.  They had done a lot right and I’d benefitted from their new policies and a broad range of individual support options available.  However, a year after my return to work didn’t get my former role back and I concluded it was time for me to move on.

It was such a shame, because despite incredible progress in terms of mental health support it was the attitudes and beliefs of just one individual that showed there’s still a long way to go. Until we can change the hearts and minds of these individuals and talk about a mental health conditions in the same frank and non-biased way that we approach physical conditions we must continue to fight against stigma and campaign to improve knowledge about mental health. Importantly, we must also demonstrate how capable and strong those who have experienced mental ill-health really are. A point which was proven a few weeks ago when a different manager from the company reached out to me wanting to encourage me back. Turned out he, and my previous client had missed me and still had a big gap to fill and some projects that now needed to be turned around.

So, my advice is simple and easy to remember. 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?“.



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