It was Dr Brock Chisholm, the first Director-General of the World Health Organization, who once famously stated that “without mental health, there is no health”.
For years now, we have seen the rise in the popularity of yoga, mindfulness, clean eating, wellbeing, and a whole array of trends to help us live better, healthier and less stressful lives. And yet, while we might strive to take care of ourselves outside of work, the pressures we so easily accept within work, can often the root cause of so many of the problems we aim to fix at home.
Last month, the government’s ground-breaking ‘Thriving at Work’ report revealed that a heart-breaking 330,000 people a year on average lose their jobs due to long-term issues related to mental health.
What is so often forgotten in today’s fast-paced world is that we are humans, not machines. And just because two people have the same job title, it does not mean they are capable of working to the same level of pressure or for the same prolonged period of time. And just because they can give that little bit extra for that one hard week, it does not mean they’re capable of doing it indefinitely.
Periods of prolonged pressure aren’t good for anyone. We’ve all had those weeks where staying late, coming in early, skipping launch have become the norm in order to get that project out the door. It’s stressful, it’s hard, and it takes its toll. Yet in the competitive world of work, these weeks often blur together to become the norm, and mental health is pushed back of mind. And when the moment to talk about it finally comes up, it’s too late.
I have worked with people for many years now, whose jobs have led to problems with everything from alcohol and depression to anxiety and self-harming; all relating back to the fear of failure or risk of losing their jobs, if they admit that enough is enough and they cannot work at that pace any more.
Everyone has their breaking point. For the lucky, it comes in time to undo the damage caused. For the unlucky, it comes too late. And for those employers whose staff end up falling into the latter category, it’s costing an estimated £99 billion a year.
All too often the culture which allows for this pressure to build, is one which has become inadvertently ingrained in the workplace. Senior members of the team push junior members because they worked to breaking point themselves to get where they are, competitive juniors accept more and more work in the hopes of succeeding … and the cycle goes on. So what, if anything, can be done?
Make it okay to talk about mental health
One of the hardest obstacles for those suffering from mental health issues is the association with weakness. Having to be taken off a project, call in sick, or get extra support to get something over the line, are so often counted against an employee – consciously or not. Promotions are taken off the table, hours get longer as workloads fall behind, and the enviable impact is that the grassroots issue worsens and the employee eventually quits. Either for their own good, or for the sake of the team they believe they’re failing.
What leaders need to be looking for is a way to create open communication, where employees are able to talk freely about these issues at work without fear of repercussion. This may come in the form of workshops, external services, buddy systems, or any number of initiatives. The key is to create an environment where anyone can stick up their hand and say “enough is enough”, and know that they will be heard, understood and supported.
Create a safe space
It’s almost impossible to avoid stress at work. There will be busy days, hard weeks, last minute projects. It is, after all, the way of the world. And understanding that you can’t push someone to capacity constantly and still expect perfection, is often one of the hardest lessons to learn as an employer. Human beings, simply, do not work like that.
I’ve written previously about the difference between employees thriving and surviving at work, and these latest figures shine a very harsh light on just how vast that difference can be.
The key is to ensure that your team has downtime; a chance to bond and discover who they are – both individually, and as part of the group. This can be through external workshops or team bonding exercises – or, as one company I recently saw, giving employees five per cent free time to work on personal passion project during work hours so they are able to share it with the team. The important takeaway here is that the closer the team can grow, the safer the individual members within that group will feel, in sharing concerns before it gets too late.
For many, the fear of failure can be hard. But for those suffering from mental health issues, the fear that they’re letting someone else down, when many already feel that they’re letting themselves down, can be damaging and dangerous. The government’s report has already highlighted the lack of support being received and, hopefully, may start to turn the tide. The question all employers should be asking themselves now is, ‘does #ThirvingAtWork risk my employees’ mental health?’
About Mary Craig
After qualifying as an Optometrist in 1986, Mary moved to Jersey where she has run a successful private practice ever since. Her particular interest lies in the relief of visual stress using coloured lenses, often referred to as Meares-Iriens Syndrome.
In 2010, Mary founded Epona.je at Le Catel Farm as a retreat for personal development and emotional wellbeing through Equine Assisted Therapies. The centre has continued to grow and now serves as a sanctuary for growth and healing for a range of mental health conditions, as well as continuing to work with both corporate teams, families and individuals to support personal development and growth.