I’ve written a lot about mental health. You might have noticed. What I haven’t written about is attitudes to mental health in the workplace. This is a hugely important issue if we are to ever reach a point where we can truly say that mental health is considered as important an issue as physical health. Today – October 10th 2017 – is World Mental Health Day and the theme is workplace well-being. This has prompted me to consider my own experiences in this regard and the wider issues that it raises.
There is an obvious incentive for employers to take this issue seriously given the number of days at work that are lost due to sick days caused by struggles with mental health. This costs employers money and, rightly or wrongly, we live in a world where the financial bottom line dictates so many of society’s priorities. So you would think that more employers would want to recognise and better understand mental health so that they can better support staff that may be struggling. Unfortunately this is far from being the case.
Last night I was very proud to attend a celebration of the 10 year anniversary of the Time To Change campaign, hosted by the Department of Health at Whitehall. It was a true privilege to be in the company of so many inspirational people, who are using their voices to speak about their lived experiences of mental health problems to change things for the better for everybody that struggles. And make no mistake, any of us can struggle with mental health problems and in any given year 1 in 4 of us will.
One of the people that spoke at last night’s event was a young man that lost his job due to mental ill health, made redundant by a big employer that said all of the right things about supporting staff but fell far short when it came to putting easily spoken words into practice. This young, intelligent, articulate man was faced with being out of work in the run up to Christmas and having to avoid Tube stations for fear of what he may do as the trains approached. That is the stark reality of the impact of mental health problems and of how quickly they can spiral into a despair so deep, an anguish so painful, that the thought of getting through just one more day, one more hour, is too much to bear. Yet this young man has so much to offer and thankfully he is now doing much better and speaking out to help others.
Many of us, men in particular, derive a large part of our sense of self, our self-esteem, from our work. When people are struggling at work mental health problems can follow and yet many of us feel unable to speak out for fear of how our employers will react, for fear of losing our jobs and a subsequent descent into the dark spiral that can follow when financial and family responsibilities can suddenly no longer be met. I know this all too well. I’ve been there and have felt that fear and have struggled on beyond breaking point, leading to a very public breakdown at a work event in 2006 with around 100 colleagues present. At that time I thought that I would never be able to work again. I thought that my life was over.I had a tremendously supportive boss who understood mental health. The company that employed me also had a sickness policy that meant that any member of staff on long-term sick leave would receive their full salary for 6 months, followed by 50% of their salary for an indefinite period. Not everybody is so fortunate.
During my second illness in 2013 I was again blessed with an incredibly supportive boss, a good man who did his best to try and understand what I was going through, who would go for a walk with me and take me for a drink to show that he cared and wanted to do whatever he could to help. Unfortunately the sickness policy of my employer meant that after 1 month’s sick leave I was reduced to statutory sick pay and this placed an enormous financial burden on me and my family. It’s said that most of us are only a few pay slips away from being homeless and I have stared at that possibility and know how true it is. Again, I was lucky. I was able to return to the job that I love but for too many people this is not the case. It must change.
We can’t afford to lose talented, hard-working employees from the workplace due to problems that thrive and grow in silence.
We must become more aware of and more understanding of the nature of these issues and how as employers and as colleagues we can help to address them. Failure to do so will come at a cost not only to our economy but more importantly to our humanity, for what greater thing can any of us do than to be there for somebody when they most need it? As an employer, as a colleague, as a friend. Mental health issues are a growing problem, particularly amongst young people in a world that heaps more and more expectations on them from every angle. Failure to face up to and tackle how we deal with mental health in the workplace is not an option.
What can be done to improve things? Perhaps most important of all is that we talk about it and we listen. Time To Change are leading the way with their campaign and it is working, with evidence of attitudes to mental health changing and stigma being tackled. Greater openness in being able to discuss mental health at work must happen both at an organisational policy level and at an individual, colleague to colleague level. That’s not to say that everyone must feel able to talk to everyone – of course not, life’s not like that – but nobody should feel that they have to struggle alone at work. Somebody should be there. People often avoid talking to people that are struggling because they don’t know what to say or do, indeed my own boss has said this to me. I told him that he did the most important thing, he listened and he cared. You don’t need to be a mental health expert to do that, we can all be that colleague. Would you be?I think that training and support to help managers to deal with staff that are facing mental health problems would be a big step forward. Another thing that needs to happen is for employers to consider how they can support staff through difficult times through having policies and procedures to protect employees when they are sick. I’m no Human Resources expert but it seems absurd to me that I could punch, harass or abuse somebody at work and be suspended on full-pay indefinitely pending the outcome of an investigation, yet if I am ill I could face a financial calamity within months. This applies to both physical and mental illness. When it takes all of your physical and mental resources to get yourself well again the added burden of financial pressure can and does lead to tragedy in too many circumstances.
Of course there is a reality to face regarding the amount of money that employers have available to them to implement adequate policies but challenging questions must be asked about whether employers are truly prioritising the well-being of their most important assets – their staff.
I mentioned at the start of this post about the number of days that are lost to employee absence due to mental health problems. Many, many of these sick days will not be reported as such and the person will say that they are suffering with a stomach bug or migraine or some other sickness that does not carry the stigma that mental health problems do. I know this myself – despite being very open about my own past struggles and having a supportive manager it is still very difficult to admit to whilst actually going through a difficult period.
I think that the idea of allowing staff to take an agreed number of ‘mental health days’ to look after their mental wellbeing could be a hugely positive step in addressing this. I know just how much difference simply taking a day or two out to look after yourself can make. Some employers may fear people abusing this system and saying they are ‘stressed’ to get a day off but really that’s just an excuse, after all people can and do phone in sick for hangovers. There are always checks and balances that can be put in place to ensure that systems will not be widely abused. And anyway, what’s one or two days off work when failure to provide such support could lead to a member of staff having to be off work for months due to not being given the time needed to look after themselves when they needed it?
We’ve come a long way in challenging the stigma around mental health and Time To Change, Mind and others must take enormous credit for their campaigning. I’m one of the lucky ones. I survived my challenges and have thrived not in spite of, but because of them. Not everyone is so fortunate, and whilst that continues to be the case we must continue to talk until mental health stigma is an archaic remnant of a less enlightened past.
Every single one of us can help to make that happen with a simple choice – do you want to be part of the problem or do you want to be part of the solution? Think carefully, for one day it may be your friend, your child, or you that wishes things were better.
Under Pressure – Queen & David Bowie