Hr and mental health
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A new blog on HR and mental health encourages us to take an unflinching look at a big topic

We need more honest conversations – more messy, scary conversations – about mental ill-health at work. But these are the conversations that are the most difficult to have. How do you talk to colleagues about being signed off for depression? How do you open up to your manager about an eating disorder?

And, on the other side of the table, if you’re an HR practitioner, line manager or co-worker, how equipped do you feel to help someone experiencing crippling anxiety or suicidal thoughts? These are topics that up until a few years ago were all but taboo in the workplace. Things are slowing changing, but eliminating stigma is a process that will only happen one honest conversation at a time.

People Management, CIPD’s HR publication, launched a blog earlier this month that encourages more open discussion of mental health in the world of HR. HR and mental health: your stories asks HR and L&D practitioners to submit stories about their experiences with mental ill-health and work. The blog aims to create a safe space for people to share, discuss and learn how mental health issues affect our working lives and – crucially – how the workplace responds.

The contributions have been refreshingly frank.

‘Everything changed when my boss found out about my depression’

Sarah, an HR manager in her 30s, described how the stress from her increasingly heavy workload turned to anxiety and then depression. After disclosing her diagnosis to her own HR manager, her boss found out and, in Sarah’s words, ‘everything changed’.

‘Instead of being thought of as the strong one, I was treated like the weak one. Even his tone of voice changed when he spoke to me.’ In the absence of any support from her employer, Sarah went from being ambitious to feeling like a failure. Six months after her disclosure she was signed off sick with stress, and eventually resigned. ‘Sadly I lost friends who were colleagues who thought I had “let the team down”.’

‘I was admitted to a mental health hospital’

Stewart, a head of L&OD in his 50s, admitted himself to a mental health hospital after attempting suicide when overwhelmed by stress from his workload and personal relationship. After a long period of recovery, he returned to work but has found the support he needs is present in name only.

‘Some colleagues avoid me like the plague. My manager has been understanding to a degree, but not overly and has expected me to just jump back into the swing of things (i.e. they say the right things, and then at the same time work overload is creeping back).’

‘My anorexia means bake sales are a nightmare’

Heather, an HR administrator in her 20s, feels her employer would be supportive should she disclose her history of anorexia, but wrote that her mental health is like ‘living with a dirty secret’.

‘I never feel that I can be open about my struggles as I fear people will view me as selfish. Unless you have been through anorexia you cannot understand the struggles you need to go through – dealing with anxiety and the mental side, plus the physical side of restoring weight. This can make work difficult sometimes.’

‘I look back on this as the year that broke me’

Simon, a senior L&D project manager in his 40s, described how he developed stress-related depression from working on a nightmare project for a client which led to him having a breakdown. His employer was extremely supportive and gave him the time he needed to begin his recovery. His company also changed policies and procedures as a result of what happened, and when he returned to work, he felt fully supported by his boss.

And yet, nobody had raised a red flag in the run up to his breakdown. ‘Colleagues said they’d been surprised at what happened to me, yet as far as I was concerned it was obvious months beforehand I was close, and I couldn’t believe they’d not seen it.’

Getting comfortable talking

While HR is a good place to start, it shouldn’t hold sole guardianship of employees’ mental health – that’s up to all of us. Putting the uncomfortable topics on everyone’s agenda is the only way we can build better support structures into the workplace and develop more robust mental health policies.

Senior executives and department heads need to act as champions of mental wellbeing and make it clear they don’t view mental ill-health as weakness. Line managers need mental health training to give them the knowledge, skills and confidence to help. Platforms should be developed for people within organisations to share their own stories; Barclays ‘This is Me’ campaign features colleagues talking about their mental health issues and has gained huge traction within the bank. Employee-led networks need to be encouraged so employees have safe spaces to share, learn, and campaign for change within their company.

We all need to be having more frank conversations about mental health; to do this, we need to make it ok to talk.

If you’re an HR or L&D practitioner who has experienced a mental health issue, you can share your experience of HR and mental health on the blog.