Mental health in the workplace: we need to talk

Jon Blackburn, Aviva UK Health & Protection Proposition Development Manager, wonders why so few people feel able to talk about mental health issues.

Here, he explores the findings of the 2018 Aviva-sponsored Money & Mental Health Report survey of people who've taken time off for mental health reasons in the last five years.

When is it time to talk?

Unlike many physical conditions, symptoms of mental illness can be difficult to recognise, and even more difficult for work colleagues to pick up on.  Most of us find that our state of mind can change rapidly – we all have days when we feel stressed or anxious. But if we can gain an understanding of our own mental wellbeing ‘thermometer’, we’ll be able to recognise when we’re suffering from something more than an ‘off day’ and really do need to talk.

A third (32%) of survey respondents who have taken time off work for their mental health in the last five years didn’t feel able to tell the people they work for about their mental health problems 1.

Recognising the issues

So, how can we improve personal awareness of mental wellbeing?  Providing employees with access to learning on mindfulness and personal resilience is a great way to start. This could be done through workshops, apps or online training modules. Many secondary schools now provide coaching on personal resilience, such as ‘the seven habits of the highly effective teenager’ – but most employees certainly won’t have had prior experience of this kind of support. In a world that’s seeing rapid technological change, with resultant re-shaping of our working environment, we need to be adaptable and resilient. 

Starting the conversation

Conversations about mental health are unlikely to arise unprompted. It often takes an intuitive colleague or manager to set the ball rolling.  Not all of us have the necessary life experience or natural ability to recognise emotional upset in colleagues.  We may view someone’s outburst, or negativity, as simply antisocial, rather than a symptom of emotional upset that could be alleviated with our support.

This doesn’t always need a great deal of our time or complex clinical intervention – a quick chat and a sympathetic ear might be all that’s required. And if we can go a step further and provide team-by-team training on mental wellbeing, the members of each team will learn to recognise symptoms of anxiety or low mood in friends and colleagues. From here, they’re a short step away from developing simple mental wellbeing strategies.

Trust and confidentiality

The good news is that mental health is now being talked about much more openly in society, and the UK population is starting to make use of mental health services more readily. But is this translating to the workplace? There’s still a need to overcome nervousness around potential career progression amongst employees who admit to having mental health issues. 

In some companies, there’s a persistent misconception that people experiencing mental illness are less likely to recover completely – and fully meet the demands of their role – than those suffering from a physical illness. In reality, one in four of us will experience an episode of mental illness in our lives, from which most will make a full recovery.  So, while we’ve made great steps in being more open about mental illness within our communities, we’re still cautious about seeking appropriate help and support at work.

Awareness and openness about mental health is the start of the journey.  If we want employees to be open about their mental wellbeing, there needs to be a culture of trust and agreed confidentiality.  Employees talking to line managers or colleagues about their mental wellbeing need to be reassured that their conversations will be treated with confidentiality and impartiality.   Mental health first aiders, wellbeing champions and mental health allies all provide essential avenues for employees to discuss their mental wellbeing and access impartial support. 

A two-pronged approach

It takes two people to engage in any conversation.  When it comes to talking about our mental health, we need to know when we’ve tipped from ‘just an off day’ to ‘I need to talk to someone about how I’m feeling’.  With improved awareness of our mental wellbeing thermometer, we’re more likely to seek support from colleagues and line managers before our mental health impacts on relationships and performance. 

At the same time, employers, managers and colleagues need to create an environment of trust and confidentiality, often implemented through a clear company policy.

If we can get both of these developments to work in tandem, we can start the conversations we need to reduce the impact of presenteeism or absenteeism… on individuals, teams and the organisation as a whole. 

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