Eliminating fear and developing workplace adjustments are vital to supporting employee mental health
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Eliminating fear and developing workplace adjustments for employee mental health

‘Holistic’ is perhaps the sort of word one hears ricocheting off the walls of large organisations only when the boss spits it out (with a mouthful of coffee) in a particularly uncomfortable meeting about efforts to promote mental wellness amongst employees.

We still treat mind and body as separate entities, as if the mind wasn’t itself housed inside a physical organ, subject to the same stresses and strains as a kidney or a heart. It’s only now beginning to dawn on the business world that there’s a limit to how far you can stretch your workforce before the elastic wears out and people begin struggling to bounce back.

Leaving mental illness at home is no longer an option

The old hands among us have perfected the art of flying under the radar, asking for time off only when we can feign a headache, and spending our evenings catching up with work we didn’t have the concentration for in the noise of an open plan office. So far, so good though, right? Perhaps so, but a younger, more open generation who are more used to talking about mental health are bringing new blood and new expectations to work. Things are changing.

Nobody expects you to pretend to walk on a broken leg at work – imagine how much damage you’d do! Now apply the same logic to mental illness in the workplace.

It can be tough to sever ties with our unconscious biases, but let’s refocus for a minute here: we spend a third of our adult lives at work, so the idea that you can somehow leave your ‘self’ at home is not a realistic notion. If you break your leg you don’t just wear the cast at home, and mental illnesses are no different. Nobody expects you to try and hide your cast, or to take it off and pretend to walk on your injured leg. Imagine how much more damage you’d do! Now apply the same logic to mental illness in the workplace – sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? But this is exactly what millions of people are doing every day.

So what do we do about it?

Workplace adjustments and empathy

Best practice in mental health at work is yet to be modelled, but I can guarantee it doesn’t involve the ‘La la la, I’m not listening!’ approach.

Employers are legally obligated to make what are known as ‘reasonable adjustments’ for employees with disabilities – mental health included. There’s a debate around that terminology and some particularly progressive organisations now use ‘workplace adjustments’. By far the biggest stumbling block here is fear. Employees fear being judged as weak or incapable, employers fear saying or doing the wrong thing – so everyone keeps quiet and tip-toes around the issue, hoping it’ll go away.

Best practice in mental health at work is yet to be modelled, but I can guarantee it doesn’t involve the ‘La la la, I’m not listening!’ approach, and if you’ve got a basic level of human empathy then you’ve got the skills to achieve it. As an example, here are my current workplace adjustments as an employee with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD):

  • Noise cancelling headphones for the open plan office – minimises distractions
  • An app that records meetings and allows me to colour-code sections for easy reference later – to aid my memory
  • Home working when needed – so I can see my therapist or psychiatrist without fielding awkward questions from colleagues and be more productive when I feel relaxed
  • Succinct and clear instructions – avoid micromanaging
  • A ‘no surprises’ attitude – I can take on any challenge with time to prepare

And here are the most important ones:

  • Flexible schedule and trust to manage my own workload and time – so I can work when I feel most productive
  • Open-mindedness – I don’t expect you to know all the answers, but we can work in partnership to find them

Providing the antidote to poor handling of mental illness

Now if you were to apply these to a non-disabled employee, it sounds pretty standard. But the reality for many employees who tell their employer they have a mental health condition is very different, purely because judgement suddenly comes into play. The antidote is to be aware of biases before disclosure even happens and to take steps to reinforce the expectations of your line managers – to challenge their beliefs and assumptions about mental health every step of the way, from the very first interview through to the daily grind.

Above all else, put workplace adjustments in place in partnership with a person. Remember, don’t simply ask the employee what support they need and leave it at that. They might never have disclosed to an employer before, so there are many adjustments they may need to work out as they go. Giving them some examples of adjustments made for others with similar needs gives them a good starting point.

You might be wondering what makes this an attractive proposition for an employer – bending over backwards for someone who might go off sick at the first sign of pressure. Why bother?

It takes a lot of ingenuity to learn to appear confident and composed when inside you’re consumed by anxiety.

There are actually many benefits to employing people with mental health conditions. Many have had to learn how to cope with debilitating symptoms over years, whilst no one, sometimes even family, is any the wiser. It takes a lot of ingenuity to learn to appear confident and composed when inside you’re consumed by anxiety, suppressing what can be extremely physical feelings during working hours so as not to show vulnerability. Removing that layer of anxiety might mean your business can benefit from this ingenuity to get ahead.

That person you’ve been sitting next to for the past six months might seem aloof, when actually they’re just not ‘neurotypical’ and they find social interaction difficult. With the right support that person could be the most creative person you have.

And chances are they’d also be loyal if you gave them reason to be.