Depression, anxiety, stress - mental health issues in the workplace are cause for concern for many employers.
According to the HSE stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 9.9 million days lost to work related ill health between 2014/2015.
As a person who has ‘suffered’(and I use the word suffer deliberately, as this is not just a case of feeling a bit down, or “having an off day”), my experiences of how my illness has been dealt with/supported during my working life has varied greatly.
A vicious circle
As someone who has been in Learning & Development for the majority of my working life, I know all too well how difficult it is to deliver training when it has taken all of your energy to just get out of bed.
To stand in front of a group of eager and enthusiastic students/learners/delegates and not let them see how much anguish and torment you are experiencing is no mean feat, I can tell you! Sometimes it’s just not do-able. So then you decide to ring in sick; this exacerbates the feelings of worthlessness, and makes you question your abilities and adds to the feelings of guilt (which is a constant companion).
Self loathing and self hatred are emotions I have felt on many an occasion, as I questioned my ability to perform my role and also agonised over how my colleagues perceive me due to my depression. Whilst compassion and empathy for physical illness are often plentiful, this is often not the case when people are dealing with mental ill health.
People often just don’t know what to do for fear of making someone feel worse
I remember receiving a bouquet of flowers after having a hip replacement, when I was off with depression, not so much as a ‘we’re thinking about you’ card which would have made me feel much less isolated and also cared for by my colleagues.
However, I am not apportioning blame as I have seen this all too frequently. Unfortunately there is still so much stigma which accompanies mental ill health; people often just don’t know what to do for fear of making someone feel worse. So, here lies the rub…..people don’t know what to say, and there is still the perception (in some cases) that depression is an easy excuse for someone who may wish to swing the lead for a few days.
I remember someone commenting that ‘back-pain’ was the go-to excuse for ‘pulling a sickie’ but this has now been replaced by ‘depression/anxiety/stress’. As professionals we need to challenge these perceptions and look at how we can address them.
A lack of understanding
In my last role, I worked with organisations to help them assess themselves against standards in the Workplace Wellbeing Charter (a framework to see how they performed in terms of workplace health and wellbeing against eight standards, including mental health).
An issue which came up time after time was the lack of understanding by line managers around mental illness. Employees were often scared and anxious about making that telephone call to say they just couldn’t make it in to the workplace. Once the phone call had been made, some absence policies and procedures stipulated that the employee had to phone their line manager every day which can exacerbate the anxiety which is already felt by the individual.
The ‘return to work’ interview is often construed as a 'checking up on me' interview
Following that, the ‘return to work’ interview is often construed as a 'checking up on me' interview, and coupled with policies which may invoke disciplinary proceedings, if you have had more than a certain number of periods of sickness, this does nothing to quell the distress.
Again a greater understanding of mental ill health and how to support individuals is paramount in helping the individual eliminate anxiety caused by being absent. Some organisations use Wellness Recovery Action Plans, which can be of great help to both individual and business when someone has a recurring illness (this isn’t confined to purely mental ill health).
The confidence to support
I first attended Mental Health First Aid training in 2010 and was fascinated by the concept. Why do we have First Aid trainers in organisations to support people who may have had an accident and are in distress or need attention but for anyone who may be experiencing mental distress, their needs aren’t addressed?
Fast forward six years and I am now a MHFA Trainer which allows me to use my training skills and my experience of depression to inform and educate people around Mental Health. What’s the point I hear you ask, surely any compassionate member of a team would go to help a colleague if they were distressed? Well of course, in an ideal world that would happen. However, is everyone in your workforce equipped to deal with someone who may be having a psychotic episode?
Mental Health First Aid equips individuals with skills to feel confident in supporting someone who is experiencing distress
If you spot cigarette burns on the arms of your line manager, would you feel comfortable having that conversation? Your team leader is stressed and tired because their teenage son is behaving erratically and is saying he is being watched by M15 and he is hearing voices. Could you deal with that? Mental Health First Aid equips individuals with knowledge and skills to feel confident in supporting someone who is experiencing distress and can offer techniques to support that person until professional help is accessed.
This isn’t about being a counsellor, and this is made blatantly clear on the course, the same way that undertaking a First Aid at Work course does not make you an A&E doctor. It is about being there in those first moments of distress when, to the person experiencing anguish their world is crashing down around them.
These skills are not just confined to the workplace either as I know I can call on them at any time. However, this is also about educating people about the impact mental ill health can have on not just the individual themselves, but also their loved ones, colleagues, friends etc. It’s about understanding that we’re not just 'swinging the lead' we’re not 'mardy arses' we can’t just "pull ourselves together” whilst hoisting our chins up. If only it were that simple!
So a call to arms. Please help break the stigma. Consider equipping your teams, co-workers, colleagues and line managers with the knowledge, confidence and skills to support those in distress. You wouldn’t believe the difference you could make to someone. Surely that’s worth it?