We need to talk about mental health in the workplace now

Andrew, 34, has bipolar disorder, but it doesn’t prevent him from working as a successful marketing executive in London.

The attitude of his employer, GrantTree, to his mental health has been crucial to his professional success, he says.

“It has made an enormous difference to work for a company that supports and accepts me as a whole person, including my mental health,” he told mental health charity, Mind.

“Our sick leave policy explicitly covers time off for mental health issues – and occasionally I have to use it – but mainly it helps remind me that I’m OK, and there’s nothing bad or shameful about needing to look after your emotional health.”

Andrew values being able to be honest and to cut back on his working hours if he has to.

“Working part-time has definitely helped me reduce stress and manage my life better. I know that I am a valued member of the team, and no-one thinks any less of me for sometimes being unwell,” he said.

But he hasn’t always been so fortunate. In his last job, his employer was outwardly supportive. “But when things got really bad and I had to take an extended period off, the relationship broke down,” he said.

“When I wanted to return to work, I was told I would be redeployed – effectively a demotion. In some ways that period when you’re first getting back on your feet is the hardest time, and this was a massive blow,” he said. Andrew eventually had to leave.

High profile campaigns on mental health, endorsed by celebrities like Prince Harry, who have spoken candidly about their own experience, have broken down stigmas, but experts argue that much still needs to be done in dealing with such a complex health issue in the workplace.

One in three of the UK’s workforce currently have a health and wellbeing issue, with the most common being anxiety, depression and stress, according to a recent PwC survey.

“In the last few years, we’ve seen employers come on leaps and bounds when it comes to tackling stress and supporting the mental wellbeing of their staff, including those with a diagnosed mental health problem,” said Emma Mamo, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at Mind.

“However, there is more to do and employers do need to recognise the different approaches they may need to adopt in how they address mental health in the workplace.”

Recent research released in early August by Mind, based on 15,000 employees across 30 organisations, revealed that one in three men attribute poor mental health to their job, while women say their jobs and problems outside of work are equal contributing factors.

While two in five women feel the culture in their organisation makes it possible to speak openly about their mental health problems, only one in three men say the same.

Two in five women have taken time off for poor mental health at some point in their career, but this is true of just one in three men.

“It is concerning that so many men find themselves unable to speak to their bosses about the impact that work is having on their wellbeing and even more worrying that they are then not asking to take time off when they need it,” said Mamo.

Business in the Community, a charity promoting social responsibility at work, last year began a three year survey of mental health at work – one of the largest of its kind – to raise awareness and identify how equipped line managers and employees were to identify and deal with problems.

“At the end of the day you can’t manage what you can’t talk about and so this is about breaking the stigma around mental health,” said Louise Aston, the charity’s wellbeing campaign director.

The study aims to improve line manager’s capabilities in helping employees, and to address a common disconnect between senior bosses and the rest of their organisation.

After the first year of the survey, it was clear that barriers to helping people remain, said Aston.

“There’s a huge injustice because of the stigma. People are suffering in silence because they feel unable to disclose, they fear the consequences, that they’ll be written off. So they’re not able to access timely support,” she said.

“There’s also a massive inequality between mental and physical health,” Aston pointed out.

“You don’t expect to come into the work place to be physically harmed so in the same way you shouldn’t go into the workplace and be mentally harmed. And it hasn’t got that priority.”

While some enlightened employers offered support, people were still at risk of losing their jobs or being discriminated against in some organisations, she suggested.

“We’ve still got a heck of a long way to go on this agenda, in terms of understanding – [For] people who are experiencing a mental health issue, their performance may well dip – and in terms of people who may have disclosed a mental health issue who end up getting disciplined or even dismissed.”

Educating employers in how to make adjustments to the working day was key, she said. “Just writing someone off sick isn’t always the right course of action. Work can often be the solution,” Aston pointed out.

A social media post in June by Madalyn Parker, a web developer at a Michigan-based chat software company, about the understanding response she received from her CEO, Ben Congleton, to her honesty about taking time off for mental health, quickly went viral.

“I’m taking today and tomorrow off to focus on my mental health. Hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%,” she wrote to her team.

Congleton replied, holding her up as an example of how to cut through stigmas by reminding employees of the importance of using sick days for mental health.

Aston argues that the use of sick days for mental as well as physical health problems is absolutely reasonable, although she believes that using sick days as a “preventative” method to deal with mental ill health is not the right approach.

“The answer is really about embedding mental health into organisational culture so that will safeguard mental health in the first place,” she said.

“If there are employees who have mental health issues, it’s about making reasonable adjustments so that might be reducing somebody’s working day, it might be about working from home.”

Early indicators of mental health issues include behavioural changes. For example, if somebody starts coming in late, or they’re very tired and irritable.

“Let’s be clear, line managers aren’t there to be counsellors, but what they do need is training to spot the early warning signs of someone who might be developing a mental health issue. They need to be equipped with clear referral pathways in terms of knowing where to signpost people to,” said Aston.

“Also training to have some of those difficult conversations. In terms of actively listening, being non-judgemental, these things can be learned. Even with a line manager who lacks natural strong interpersonal skills, it’s like learning to dance, you can still learn the moves.”

In terms of translating awareness into mass action, there are some employers doing “really well” and others who are “still not doing enough, if anything at all,” said Aston.

“I would say that we’ve reached a kind of tipping point in awareness. We need to see a groundswell from employees themselves actually requesting support,” she said.

“It’s heartening that we have seen a tipping point but in terms of turning a corner there’s still a long way to go sadly.”

The difficulties of translating well-meaning company policies into action became disturbingly clear to one Australian health sector worker who found herself temporarily suspended after being accused of “bullying and intimidation” by a colleague she tried to help.

The employee, who did not wish to be named, was a line manager to a colleague with a history of mental health issues.

When she noticed signs that her colleague appeared unhappy, she took her to a separate room to ask how she was doing but was then, to her shock, slapped with a bullying charge by the person she was attempting to support.

“I was absolutely humiliated. I was sent home… the whole team was told that I was not allowed to interact with them because I was up for bullying and harassment,” she said.

“I’d done everything that I’d learned in training – having a chat on the side, but then taking a different tack if needed. But starting with a general chat was everything that I had been taught,” she said.

The situation was eventually resolved amicably after six months, but during that time the line manager felt abandoned by her own bosses.

“It’s got to start from management. Obviously it also depends on the size of the organisation. But of any size, it’s got to start from the top and be backed up, because it can’t be empty rhetoric. Everybody has got to support the need for good mental health.”

Others have been encouraged by the proactive stance of their employers. Chrissie Johnson, who works for the Scottish police force, has trained as a mental health first aider.

“The upper management have decided to roll out wellbeing champions, ordinary people who can be approached by staff, maybe not their direct line managers, as sometimes they may not want to divulge what’s going on as they feel it may be a sign of weakness,” she said.

“In our organisation, it has been recognised that having people that can be approached, who offer kindness, support and appropriate information, helps to reduce distress and promote recovery.”

Johnson’s role is to offer support in a crisis until professional help can be provided. Her two day course taught her how to ask about suicide and how to recognise signs of mental health problems.

“Within my role it may be as simple as attending a meeting with a line manager or a GP appointment with them just to give them the strength to talk about what’s going on,” she said.

“Encouraging them to talk is the most important thing, and being able to signpost the appropriate help that they need.”

Mark Fleming, who set up Positive Mental Health Scotland, is on the frontline of the battle for healthy minds in the macho world of football.

As well as serving as chaplain to the Scottish Football Association, he created his own business to offer tailored mental health first aid workshops to football clubs and NHS workers, to put “tools in their hand to have confidence to approach somebody.”

Fleming believes that mental health problems are on the rise.

“The rhythm of life has changed so that we’re much more performance-based, results-driven as a society. There’s much more opportunity for people to look at our results and compare them,” he said.

While mental health problems are more widely acknowledged, the conversation about them needs to change, he argued.

Employees still feared that they could be seen as a liability if they admitted to having mental illnesses, but employers’ attitudes were changing for the better, said Fleming.

“They are recognising that it’s far better to address somebody’s mental health in the workplace and give them support rather than just discarding them,” he said.

“You’re losing a precious human resource, you’re actually just increasing your own stress and workload by having to train up somebody new,” Fleming added.

“I think we’re looking at it from a much more pragmatic point of view. Can we give folk support to continue working, rather than just discarding them? Nobody is winning in that situation, and industry is losing millions of pounds through not properly addressing mental health in a positive way.”

Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.

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