Not necessarily what will be going through your mind in terms of the last workplace taboo I am sure. You may well have your own thoughts on a workplace taboo. Or you perhaps recognise other issues that may be difficult to discuss around the kettle at work. For any people returning to work following a mental health issue, there can be silence and no support. The mental health workplace taboo can be a significant barrier to overcome.
Mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or stress, for example, may seem at the outset nothing much to worry about for co-workers. However, just discussing these issues in the office or factory floor can be tricky and awkward for some. Adding to the stigmatisation, anxiety and isolation of the individual recovering from a mental health issue. Whether we like it or not all the evidence suggests that work is a healthy place to be for your wellbeing. So why do we see mental health as a lesser condition than a number of other health issues?
Struggling with mental health
This issue came back to my attention with recent media and newspaper articles on mental health at work. The articles suggested that employers need to do more to help overcome the real or perceived stigma of mental health in the workplace. Interestingly the Time To Change campaign published that 69% of employees stopped short of telling a prospective or current employer about their condition. Either resolved or current.
John Binns, a trustee of Mind and a partner with global accounting firm Deloitte suggests that “people with mental health problems are met with stigma and discrimination right across the employment process, from job application to promotion, and are affected at different levels within organisations” (in Guardian July 2013). Clearly, we are now in 2017 and people recovering from mental health issues are still experiencing difficulties re-engaging with the workplace. Or discussing a mental health condition at work. So what is it about being diagnosed with a mental health condition that seems to create difficulties in the workplace?
It’s good to talk
In the cold light of day, there may be a few questions that may need to be asked on mental health at work. Is that employers are not interested in supporting someone with a mental health condition. Or it “self-stigmatisation” or the society-wide refusal to acknowledge mental health as any other health condition. We all seem to revel in signing a plaster cast after a sporting incident, such as skiing – almost like a badge of honour. Needless to say, the injury has resulted in a time off work for something that could have been avoided. Whereas a mental health condition that may have many antecedents is seen in a lesser light. I can’t see many people lining up to have their antidepressant packets signed by co-workers, can you?
Is it the environment and how society interprets mental health conditions, that employers and co-workers find themselves. Inseparable from the environment & culture that they work and live. As a result, we reflect the attitudes and beliefs about mental health both at home and work. We treat the issue like something we find difficult to understand and respect. Our understanding of how the brain and mind functions are difficult to rationalise, as we cannot see it working. We just witness the results of things going wrong or feeling unwell in ourselves and others.
When behaviour or an emotional state shifts, it can be hard for people who try to comfort anyone who is experiencing psychological difficulties. They may be withdrawn and uncommunicative, or perhaps react to innocuous situations in a different way than usual. So may seem irrational and difficult to understand.
Does the workplace need to step up for positive mental health?
I have been fortunate to design and manage psycho-educational coaching & learning based condition management and health & wellbeing programmes for people getting back to work. I am lead to conclude that we interpret mental health from a position of a lack of knowledge & understanding. We all have a responsibility to challenge businesses, employers and employees to de-stigmatise individuals experiencing mental health conditions. To challenge the perception that poor mental health is a “weakness”.
Businesses can easily incorporate a positive mental health workplace policy into the health & safety risk assessments. Such as the first class Mindful Employer programme. It is striking how many organisations drag their heels putting such policies into place. Some managers have even gone so far as to suggest that it is just too much aggravation to get involved with mental health issues. Well, it’s no different than any other health & safety programme and incorporating risk assessments. Thus reducing the economic and human cost of mental health discrimination at work.
So we may need to be encouraging more open and honest partnerships within business and the workplace to help line-managers and employees start the conversation to make mental health less of an issue. The evidence is there and easy to access. Businesses, managers & employees can be coached and trained to recognise the signals of poor mental health. Thus able to support co-workers, and engaging with mental health first aid.
Mental health is part of the human health – (remember “no health without mental health”). With the knowledge that work is a healthy place to be, shouldn’t we all make an effort to move this issue forward? Just as we have removed any number of other areas of prejudice and discrimination in society. No excuses any more, just action to make it okay to discuss mental health at home and work.
Employers need to do more to overcome mental health stigma at work, Guardian Tuesday 16 July 2013 http://careers.guardian.co.uk/employers-overcome-mental-health-stigma-work
Stigma and discrimination – Time to Change http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/what-are-mental-health-problems/stigma-discrimination
Taking care of business, Mind http://www.mind.org.uk/employment/progress_so_far