Mental health in the workplace

Mental health in the workplace

According to the Equality Act 2010, the definition of someone suffering from a mental health problem is an individual “with a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ effect on their ability to do normal daily activities.”

So in summary, mental health impacts how people feel, think and behave. Subsequently, mental health is vital to our productivity, happiness and overall well-being. Therefore, it seems obvious that placing mental health at the heart of business strategy would be beneficial to all. Everyone knows that having an engaged and reliable workforce creates a positive workplace culture, fostering growth and reducing costs. Yet, despite all of this, we still face a stubborn stigma and intolerance.

Although mental health issues are rife, and 1 in 4 experience a mental health problem in their life, there is still a lack of support in the workplace and fear of rejection or judgement remains stronger than having the confidence to reach out. The Time to Change campaign found that 95% prefer to call in sick with a made up reason rather than admit to a mental health problem. Clearly, many organisations are blind to the reality of mental health and it’s importance to overall workplace success. This has manifested itself in the on-going stigma, the anxious organisational culture and the lack of management training. Considering we spend the majority of our time at work, we need to ensure it is a healthy and nurturing place to be.

Stigma & Unconscious Bias

The reduction of stigma could be a low-cost method to improve workplace culture. Yet, due to fear surrounding judgement and discrimination, many prefer not to disclose what they are suffering and as a result, businesses face the struggle of staff retention and sick leave. Although awareness is increasing, and millennials have grown up hearing about anxiety, depression and eating disorders, the fact that over 6,000 people die from suicide each year in the UK reinforces that there is still a long way to go.

Stigma is maintained by unconscious bias and a lack of self-awareness. Most people are not aware of their own actions and ‘micro-behaviours’ which can have a huge impact on someone’s recovery. For instance, stereotyping someone or treating them differently because of their mental health can cause the individual to think badly of themselves and hinder their development. People can internalise negative assumptions in a self-fulfilling prophecy, causing them to withdraw, feel deeply insecure and jeopardise their own goals (Thornicroft 2006). In agreement with the charity Mind, I believe this problem is most effectively tackled by education. The misconceptions and damaging unconscious behaviours stem from a lack of understanding about mental health problems and how best to handle them. This leads to people using language that can be offensive and detrimental. Alongside this, it is important to normalise and validate all mental health issues, regardless of diagnosis. People may not always feel comfortable opening up if they do not believe their problem is serious enough. We should not need proof to treat mental health (and everything surrounding it) seriously.

Overall, the more people talk about and acknowledge mental health, the more effective we will be in recognising early warning signs and also reducing our unconscious prejudice. I often scare myself with how little I know about how to help someone with a mental health condition and I’m continuously reading and discussing the topic to self-educate. In the workplace, it would be beneficial to create an open dialogue to give us an insight into individual needs (no matter how small) and what does/doesn’t help that person’s mental health.

A Culture of Anxiety

Millennials have the highest levels of anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide. This is concerning considering that we are on the cusp of becoming the largest global workforce by 2020. A positive workplace culture is even more imperative to handle this complex and diverse range of mental health cases.

However, some argue that businesses do little to reduce stress and due to ineffective management and training, there is minimal support. As a result, people are less likely to disclose what they are going through. One research paper went as far to say that management culture mirrors anxiety rather than contains it. With the use of social media and the constant need to progress and not miss out, there is a feeling of urgency and an unrealistic idea of what is fulfilling. We are never content because we always want the next best thing and we have access to so much. So ultimately, we live in a culture of anxiety. But what can the workplace do? Employers can put steps in place to prevent a burn-out and a deterioration in it’s staff. Employers may not be able to change society and it’s fast-paced, anxious nature, but they can put forward preventative measures by understanding what employees go through outside of work and creating a workplace where people can be themselves.

Resolutions & Preventative Measures

According to the Peldon Rose Survey, 72% of employees want employers to champion mental health and well-being. However, 54% of those in leadership positions don’t feel they have the right training or guidance to do so. Clearly there is a need for education, training and in-put from medical professionals.

If managers could send signs to employees that it is safe to talk, and recognise that stress and anxiety is common, it may help in cementing preventative measures and encouraging employees to reach out.

The Time to Change campaign suggests the following to improve mental health in the workplace:

  • Taking an employee’s mental health seriously no matter how strange it may seem to you.
  • Active listening without jumping to a quick-fix.
  • Treating the employee equally and being aware of own prejudices.
  • Asking someone twice how they are feeling.
  • Continuously self-educating and building own knowledge.

Equally the Mental Health Foundation stresses the importance of discussing these issues at the right time and place and making the workplace safe and pleasant in order to help people find ways to recover. If methods such as these are maintained, employees are surely less likely to take time off, and more likely to return sooner if they do take sick leave. The costs of making these small adjustments are low, and the benefits of retaining a skilled employee are far greater.

A research paper on ‘The Management of Mental Health at Work’ by Dr Maria Hudson (Essex business school) found the following measures were beneficial: strong leadership, training for line managers and employer outreach activity to challenge stigma. Interestingly, it was also suggested that new line managers should have access to the health history of employees. However, I think this raises a few issues surrounding competency. To have access to such information would require extensive trust and also a level of expertise in how to handle different mental health cases. In the wrong hands, having access to an employee’s health history could create more stress and be detrimental to both sides.

Overall, as the Equality Act and the Disability Discrimination Act states, employers have a duty to protect employees from bullying and discriminatory behaviours. Employers have a duty to foster a positive workplace culture where mental health is at the heart, improving productivity and happiness. This may translate into tangible adjustments such as flexible working, but also initiatives to decrease stigma and improve education. Fundamentally, long-term policies that take a holistic approach, and take into consideration undiagnosed and diagnosed mental health needs, will enhance the growth and development of a workforce.