There has been fantastic progress in recent years towards normalising mental health conversations at work. However, there is still stigma and fear, and it is vital that we continue to talk about this, especially in leadership positions.
The common views I encounter are that:
- talking about mental health is a sign of weakness
- taking time to recover from mental illness is letting people down
- seeking help for a mental health challenge is the beginning of the end of someone's career.
Talking about mental health is a sign of strength
People fear that if they talk about their mental health challenges, others will see this as a weakness. There is a fear of being judged, viewed as incapable, or as someone who can't be relied upon.
Talking about mental health challenges is not a weakness, it is a sign of strength and is to be encouraged. We can all have struggles, whether based at work or elsewhere and can often worsen if we don't address them.
I struggled in silence for years with depression and anxiety. I didn't seek help or understand what was happening to me. Even when I did get help, I was afraid that there would be negative consequences and no way back. But I discovered these were my own fears rather than reflecting the reality of the support around me.
Taking time to recover is not letting people down
Another common fear in asking for help is the belief that we will let people down if we need to take time to recover.
I felt this when I was signed off from work. We had a lot of ongoing projects, and I worried that I was burdening other people with extra work if I took the time away.
This feeling is heightened when it comes to mental illness compared to physical illness. There would be less resistance to taking time off work with an illness or injury where we are all more aware of the need to get treatment, rest and recover. We know that people won't judge us if we are physically unable to work.
But a mental illness is still an illness and needs recovery time.
In my experience, my colleagues were very supportive, and it had been my fear of judgement or not being supported that was holding me back.
Being open about a mental health challenge is the first step toward recovery—not the end
I felt that once I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, there would be no way back. I believed that if I took time off work, I would struggle to find myself, drift further away, and not be returning to work.
I resisted what I needed but, I had an understanding manager who listened and guided me towards doing what was right for me but without forcing it. I was further encouraged by a colleague who had experienced major depression, was open about it, and I could see was now thriving again at work.
This helped me realise that I needed some time to begin my recovery and get well and return to work.
The time away helped me gain some perspective, took away my worries about work and gave me the space to start my therapy and begin to understand what was happening with me.
What can we do to help people?
People do still suffer in silence, fearing stigma, judgement or negative consequences of speaking up. They may also not fully understand what is happening themselves.
Leaders in workplaces play a vital role in creating a safe and supportive environment for their teams and colleagues.
Everyone should feel able to be open about their mental health challenges and to be confident that the care and support is there for them.
Workplace mental health can feel bewildering, with so many different things to consider. Here are three simple things that we can all do to help to create that positive environment:
- Talk about mental health and signpost the support available
- Check-in with our teams and colleagues
- Show vulnerability
Talk about mental health and the support available
Mental health and well-being isn't something to leave at the door of the office and ignore. It shouldn't be a taboo subject.
By talking about mental health, whether in team meetings or with individuals, we can begin to make this a normal part of everyday work. Something that isn't off-limits and that people are encouraged to talk about.
We can also talk about the support available to people, whether that is support offered by the company, such as an Employee Assistance Programme or Mental Health First Aid, or external support.
The aim is to make talking about mental health as routine as physical health and to help build knowledge of how to find help when we need it.
Check-in with our teams and colleagues
Asking people how they are and listening to the answers is important for building mental health care into work. This again normalises conversations and allows someone to talk about what is on their mind.
The listening part is important. We've all experienced people asking us how we are when they aren't interested, and it's just small talk. Showing genuine care and attention can provide the opportunity for someone to say if they are struggling.
Even then, they may not say anything straight away. When people used to ask me how I was, I used to deflect by saying, "I'm fine", even when I wasn't. The Time To Change campaign, Ask Twice provides useful guidance on using follow-up questions, especially if you suspect that the person may not be fine.
Talking about how we feel can be difficult. One option for discussing this is to ask them to rank how they feel on a scale of 1 to 10. This is the approach taken by FormScore where a 10 would be Lifetime Peak Form and a 1 signifies Crisis, Seek Help Now. This is similar to a numerical scale for talking about pain and can provide a jumping-off point for further discussion.
Leaders are not superhuman. In most organisations, employees follow cues from the leaders in the business. For example, if a partner in a law firm regularly works weekends and holidays, then the rest of the team will associate this behaviour with what is needed to become a partner.
If we want to have more open conversations about mental health at work, leaders need to act as role models. This doesn't mean we have to have had a mental illness though. We can show vulnerability by being open about how we feel, where we may have failed or struggled or are uncertain. Vulnerability goes a long way towards helping our teams feel comfortable showing vulnerability themselves and asking for help.
I'm open about my mental health challenges at work and in my industry as I want to show that it is OK to have challenges, to have been ill and that recovery and thriving with a mental health condition is possible.
Businesses are making big strides forward with mental health, but we still have some way to go. We can all play a part in having more open and supportive workplaces where people are comfortable being themselves and finding help when they need it.