The last taboo? Why we need to be more honest about mental health in the workplace
Isn’t it time that we stopped dancing around the topic?
We haven’t always been good at discussing mental health in Ireland. It used to be something that was only addressed in whispers or with a knowing look.
People resorted to euphemisms like “There’s a bit of a want in him” or “She’s bad with her nerves.” There's still a reluctance to actually address the underlying issues.
So here we are on World Mental Health Day in 2017 and many people still struggle to have an open conversation about mental health. Nowhere is the stigma more obvious than in the workplace.
The problem of perception
We don’t react to physical health problems in the same way. If someone breaks a leg, we don’t assume that they’re a risk going forward. Yet anyone can face a mental health challenge in the same way that anyone can break a bone.
The fear of being seen as damaged or different prevents people discussing mental health openly. A recent study found that over half of Irish people had some experience of someone with mental health problems. Yet only 22% said they had ever worked with someone with a mental health problem. We’ll let you do the maths.
A Bupa study in the UK showed that seven in 10 employees didn’t feel they could talk openly about mental or emotional health issues.
While senior executives recognised the business sense of having a mentally healthy workforce, over a quarter of them admitted labelling people with mental health issues as “unpredictable.” Over a fifth of them also viewed them as “weak” or “erratic.”
This stigma leads to silence. It stops people asking for help and or discussing it openly.
How do you remove the stigma?
Removing any judgement associated with mental health challenges isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s about changing attitudes, education and introducing a culture of mental health literacy.
Introducing mental health training in the office for managers and employees will help people understand what it means. It also means people are better equipped to know the warning signs surrounding mental health, whether they’re the person experiencing the challenge or someone who could potentially help.
Introducing change requires leadership. If your manager is terrified to talk about mental health, they’re part of the problem.
A recent UK study found that more than half of employees had never been asked about stress, depression or anxiety in a one-to-one with a manager. Leaders need to be informed, have the skills to discuss mental health and be able to recognise when an employee needs help or support.
It’s also a question of organisational culture. If people feel that they need to be in the office until 9pm to be considered good workers, it can cause unnecessary emotional or psychological strain. Any environment where employees are afraid to leave work on time is hardly a breeding ground for positive mental health.
Workplaces also need to adopt a culture of openness and honesty. If employees are struggling with the demands being placed upon them, they need to be able to express it without being afraid of being seen as “weak.”
Increased openness around these issues will also lead to better initiatives around work/life balance, like exercise programs or other activities that can help to reduce work-related stress and promote good mental health.
Luckily, employers are starting to see the importance of employee wellness. We’re gradually recognising the link between work-related stress or anxiety and our mental health. Attitudes are slowly changing but we still need to take a proactive approach.
We’ll know we’re there when a mental health-related absence from work is met with the same nonchalance as someone taking a day off with a common cold.