Support, ignorance and stigma around mental health at work
No amount of formal adjustment addresses the unconscious bias that even the most seasoned managers might have about mental health at work. So how do we make sure we don’t fall victim to the same old stigma?
I’ll preface this by saying that it’s easy to forget that managers are also people – we’re all guilty of expecting them to be all-knowing, infallible cyborgs when they may be struggling to manage their own mental health. Conversely, the biggest mistake managers can make is to pretend they have all the answers, or that they’re impenetrable in their ivory towers. If someone brings something to you and you don’t know what to do about it, it’s ok to say so – but then commit to finding a solution together.
This applies especially to mental health, where the issues can often be very emotive and difficult to hear, as well as to voice. By all means, share some of your own experience of mental ill-health if you feel it’s appropriate, but comparisons can feel belittling, so don’t be tempted to immediately compare their situation to that of someone else you know, because that can sound patronising.
Supporting employee mental health is not about tea and sympathy
I’ve heard from many people who’ve suffered in silence because they fear being perceived as incapable, weak or unable to deal with stress, even when they’ve never had a day off sick. And the truth is that no amount of untarnished attendance can render you immune to judgement. In 2007, I was declared ‘unlikely to ever hold down a job’ by an occupational health GP even though I’d been doing the job for six months without issue.
When someone trusts you enough to share their mental health problem and is met by ignorance, they may never again build that trust with anyone.
Many have had horrific experiences with former employers, or even friends and family who’ve refused to discuss it, or have looked upon that person with pity and ‘Oh, isn’t it a shame…’ talk. When someone trusts you enough to share and is met by ignorance, they may never again build that trust with anyone. In my experience, this is caused primarily by fear. For some managers, having an employee disclose a mental health issue to them is terrifying because it makes them confront their own demons.
Work is a vital part of recovery for many, so enforced time off can feel undermining. Having a reason to function can be a positive force here. It’s not about tea and sympathy, it’s about empathy (though yes, tea can of course provide a suitable backdrop for an honest conversation about mental health).
Outdated constructs and a culture of silence around mental health at work
Bringing your whole self to work should never feel like a mistake.
The next big mistake organisations make is to focus far too heavily on an outdated ‘professional’ construct. This can really damage people who don’t conform to those norms for reasons beyond their control. If your perception of someone’s ability is based on what’s going on for them in terms of their health, then you need to re-focus on their capability to do the job itself. Bringing your whole self to work should never feel like a mistake.
A few very senior executives have happily told me, off the record, that they experienced emotional breakdown. They were surprised at both the level of support they could get because of their status, and at how run-of-the-mill it seemed to their peers, which suggests that it’s almost expected to happen if you’re at the top of the tree. Of all the MDs I’ve spoken to about this, most are still unwilling to talk about it publicly, so are we incentivising silence? The bigger your salary, the less you want to discuss your own mental health? To me that suggests you get paid to accept the risk to your health posed by unrelenting expectations and a culture of silence when things go wrong.
Building psychological support structures into the workplace
As we clean up banking’s reputation, we must be honest with ourselves about the demands we put on employees, and on managers.
Navigating through the maze of support services can actually add to an illness and I believe this is where organisations can really make a difference. As we build honesty and transparency back into our businesses and clean up banking’s reputation, we must be honest with ourselves about the demands we put on employees, and on managers.
Awareness training needs to be widened to cover practical ways to tackle mental health. It’s not enough to focus on resilience when one in four of us already has an existing mental health condition, and knowing about symptoms doesn’t help when you’ve got someone very distressed in front of you. Even mental health first aid, the latest popular training, doesn’t fully prepare you when you see someone breaking down.
Start by challenging everything you think you know. Ask yourself whether you’d disclose this to some who might have a hand in shaping your career. If not, why not?
Truthfully, as an industry we wouldn’t be ready to cope if everyone with a mental illness suddenly disclosed it. We’d be forced to re-evaluate everything we do – right down to the fabric of our organisations.