The Last Workplace Taboo – Mental Health

Not necessarily what may be going through your mind in terms of the last taboo as I am sure you have your own or recognise issues that may be difficult subjects to discuss. However, having worked extensively supporting people trying to access re-employment or returning to work following a mild to moderate mental health issue it can be a significant barrier to overcome. Mild to moderate mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or stress for example may seem at the outset to 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, therefore adding to the stigmatisation and anxiety of the individual experiencing poor mental health. Whether we like it or not and perhaps if you have that Monday morning feeling you may not agree – all the evidence suggests that work is a healthy place to be and mainly for your mental health & wellbeing. So why do we see mental health as a lessor condition than a number of other health issues?

This issue came back to my attention with a recent Guardian article 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 has published that 69% of employees stopped short of telling a prospective of 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). With all of the evidence, what is it about being diagnosed with a mental health condition that seems to create difficulties in the workplace for work mates and managers as opposed to other health conditions.

Is it that employers are not interested in supporting someone with a mental health condition, is it “self-stigmatisation”  or the society wide refusal to acknowledge mental health as any other health condition? We all seem to revel in having people sign a plaster cast after a sporting incident, such as skiing (almost like a badge of honour) that resulted in a time off work for something that could have been avoided. Whereas a mental health condition that has many antecedents may been seen in a lesser light – not many people lining up to have their antidepressant packets signed by co-workers!

So maybe its the environment and how society interprets mental health conditions and that employers and co-workers are 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 as something that perhaps we find difficult to understand and respect. Our understanding of how the brain and mind functions is difficult to rationalise as we cannot see it working, just the results of things going wrong. When someone’s behaviour or emotional state shifts it can be quite uncomfortable for people who try to comfort anyone who is experiencing psychological difficulties. So no blame is attached to anyone who finds it difficult to understand mental health at work.

My work designing and managing psycho-educational coaching based condition management and health & wellbeing programmes for a job seekers transition back to work, leads me to conclude that we interpret mental health from a position of a lack of knowledge.  We all have a responsibility to challenge businesses, employers and employees to de-stigmatise individuals experiencing mental health conditions.   Businesses can easily incorporate a mentally healthy 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 policies such as this into place. Managers have clearly stated it is just too much aggravation, well its no different than a health & safety programme and incorporating risk assessments.  Notwithstanding the 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 issues.

The evidence is there and easy to access. Businesses, managers & employees can be coached and trained to recognise the signals of poor mental health in co-workers, mental health first aid being just one. Mental health is part of the human health – (remember “no health without mental health”) and with the knowledge that work is healthy place to be – shouldn’t we all make an effort to move this issue forward just as we have for any number of prejudices and discrimination in society?

Drop me a line if you would like to hear about the work that I undertake supporting psychologically positive and healthy change within the workplace.

References

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