Removing the Stigma of mental health in the Workplace
Every 13th-19th May is Mental Health Awareness Week, where businesses are encouraged to do more about their employees’ mental health.
Mental health is a big issue in the workplace, with figures by the Centre for Mental Health finding the total cost of mental health problems in England is £105.2 billion per year.
Although it is an issue for businesses, mental health awareness still has a stigma around it. Bupa found a staggering 94% of UK businesses admit there is a prejudice in their organisation towards people who suffer from mental health issues.
Negative attitudes around mental health are damaging to employees, with depression estimated to be the biggest cause of illness on the planet by 2030. Poor mental health can lead to absenteeism, less productivity, or even conflicts in the office. So, what can businesses do to challenge the negative perceptions of mental health? Here's our advice, direct from our mental wellbeing benefit experts.
How to challenge the stigma around mental health
Unfortunately, there’s still a stigma around mental health at work, and that needs to change. Business in the Community’s Mental Health at Work Report 2016 found that “there is a pervasive culture of silence” across workplaces, with 35% of workers not approaching anyone for support the last time they experienced poor mental health.
What causes this silence? It’s difficult to say with one answer. Lack of knowledge, basic training and support from senior leaders could be potential stumbling blocks to helping employees get the help they need. Looking outside of the office, comments from celebrity figures and newspapers recently have sent mixed messages about mental health.
The Daily Mail received criticism for its reporting on Premier League footballer Aaron Lennon, who was recently detained under the Mental Health Act, by mentioning his wealth and discussing a “stand-off” – which certainly wasn’t the case. Piers Morgan also voiced his opinion on mental health, following Prince Harry’s announcement that he sought therapy after his mother’s death by telling men to “get a grip” and “man up”.
Businesses can’t change what happens out of work, but they can educate staff about negative language around mental health. Kate Nightingale, head of communications at Time for Change, a movement set up by mental health charity Mind and Rethink Mental Illness to end mental health discrimination, told The Guardian how to be thoughtful in conversation when it comes to mental wellbeing:
“The meaning of words can change over time. ‘Manic’ and ‘mad’ are frequently used in informal conversations and, while we accept they have various meanings, they can also cause offence. Using words like ‘psycho’, ‘nutter’, ‘schizo’ or ‘loony’ to describe someone with mental health problems is certainly offensive and unacceptable.”
Sometimes, no matter what the intention may be, words can be really damaging, particularly when directed at others. That said, it is important to show an understanding of context, and help people understand why something’s not acceptable, rather than trying to police or ban certain words.
Creating a positive work culture goes hand in hand with employee health and wellbeing. This involves communicating, and the same goes for mental health, too. Businesses need to show they are understanding when it comes to mental health to make people feel supported, and help stop stigma around the subject.
Finding a balance between interfering too much and not doing enough to help is difficult to achieve. However, saying employees can have a confidential chat with managers at any point and supporting people with their unique needs, such as by allowing them to work from home to ease stress, can make a big difference.
Ways to support your employees
It may feel there’s a lot to accomplish to help employees and support mental health issues. However, starting small can grow and lead to bigger changes that can help transform the workplace culture and help with your staff retention, too.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) identifies a number of positives of going to work for mental health and wellbeing. The five aspects of work that promote mental wellbeing according to WHO are:
- Time structure (an absence of time structure can be a major psychological burden)
- Social contact (work does involve socialising, even if it doesn’t always feel like it!)
- Collective effort and purpose (employment offers a social context outside the family)
- Social identity (employment is an important element in defining oneself)
- Regular activity (organising one’s daily life)
As a business, are you providing all of the above? If so, work may be assisting good mental health rather than negatively impacting it. However, there will always be opportunities to improve on those five points, such as having more team projects, highlighting the importance of their role and how crucial they are to the business, or helping better structure their day.
People do actually feel like going to work is generally good for their mental health – 86% of employees believe that their job and being at work is significant to protecting and maintaining their mental health.
People of all different demographics, such as age, gender, and position in the organisation will think and feel differently about discussing their mental wellbeing, but businesses need to communicate openly while offering support to employees confidentially.
Men are more likely to speak to their partner about their mental health, while women prefer to talk to family members. Millennials are the generation that report experiencing depression more than any other, and 70% of millennials suffer from presenteeism as result – physically being in the office but not functioning at their full capacity.
Even if employees need help and some time away from the office to recover from their symptoms, being understanding before, during and after the process can make such a difference to their wellbeing.
Dan, a worker who suffered from bad mental health, wrote a personal blog for Time to Change and discussed his surprise at how his colleagues reacted on his return to work after being diagnosed with anxiety and depression.
“Returning to work after two months off was very hard. I was really worried about what colleagues would think of me, and what they would say, and whether I would relapse. I didn’t. I found lots of people who cared how I was, tried to help, and several who confessed their own mental health stories.”
Educating staff on the symptoms of mental health, and the signs to look out for is a step in the right direction. Mind, the mental health charity, has a lot of free resources to help employers be open and supportive when it comes to mental wellbeing.
It’s not about treading on eggshells with other employees when someone returns to work after being diagnosed with mental health issues – but being caring, showing understanding and educating colleagues on how to act when that person returns so they feel supported. Acas has case studies and guidance for businesses on how to deal with mental health at work, which is a good place to start.
Mental health isn’t something to fear as an employer, especially if a staff member is showing warning signs that they’re suffering. Open, honest, communication with that person, and trying to put structures in place to help them get through it, is vital.
Celebrities talking more about mental health in a positive light and programmes such as 13 Reasons Why have opened the door to more and more people talking about mental health, which is certainly a good thing – as long as those conversations are not stigmatising the subject.
It’s up to businesses to do more to educate staff, not turn a blind eye to those suffering, and take it seriously when it comes to helping those who need it.
Mental Health Foundation – Getting Help
Mind – Mental Health at Work
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