Employee mental health
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Supporting employee mental health at work

Since I began championing mental health over 10 years ago, I’ve seen not only huge changes to the way mental health is perceived by the public, but also a gradual realisation that mental illness is bad for business. A sea change that began as a slow trickle has grown into a tsunami of epic proportions. Personally, I find it sad that health must be reduced to numbers before such a serious problem is taken seriously – empathy is supposed to be innate after all. But here we are: things are finally moving in the right direction.

Employment as part of mental health care

You might wonder how this sleeping giant lay unnoticed for so long whilst employers lost staff hand over fist, but it wasn’t that they didn’t notice. Far from it. They simply ignored it because it was on the ‘too difficult to fix’ pile. The vast majority of charity-led campaigns for mental health focus on treatment and not on work for good reason – trends between 2011 and today show a continuous decline of investment in mental health care, year on year. Employment should form part of care and yet very few private occupational health services have the expertise to cope with even assessing adjustments for complex mental illnesses.

This breadth of expertise within occupational health is something employers need to consider if they are serious about tackling mental health issues in their workforce. To gain the trust of employees and underpin the notion that nobody is unfixable, decent occupational health must serve even the most complex of cases. Employers must also hold providers to account and set clear expectations for quality – if that means doing a bit of mystery shopping, so be it. I’ve ‘guinea-pigged’ a few processes in my time to see what the employee experience is really like, and everyone involved learned and the processes were improved as a result. Confidence and trust in occupational health can head off a multitude of problems later on and a robust feedback mechanism can help build this.

Technology and talking about the messy stuff

Three months ago I spoke at the Health@Work conference to a room packed full of HR professionals from all over the UK. In the 11 years the conference has been running, this was the first time mental health had featured. The Business Disability Forum’s recent Tech Taskforce Swapshop also focused on technology for mental health for the first time. Aside from attitude, technology has the biggest potential to bring people to work and keep them there. There are apps to aid memory, take notes, track moods to identify triggers and organise time more effectively. Employee assistance programmes can offer email counselling on demand, and for people with severe anxiety issues, wearable contactless payment devices can considerably lessen the stress of being in busy public places.

If an employer has a genuine desire to move from problems to solutions they must also begin to talk about self-harm, suicide and all the messy stuff. In reality, a CEO signed off with depression didn’t return to a fanfare with an, ‘I’m back!’ and a knowing glance. Instead, she spent the first six weeks working from home in her pyjamas because even making toast made her cry and it wasn’t until three months had passed that she could actually make any decisions. This is the reality that people need to see reflected right at the top, otherwise how can we expect staff lower down the chain to begin opening up about their own mental health issues?

Tackling the problems of perception

From being labelled as ‘unlikely to ever hold down a job’ by an occupational health GP in 2007, I’m now often used as an example of how people with ‘severe’ mental illnesses can work even in high pressure industries like financial services and, along with the standard skills, bring unique insights and qualities. Despite this I still felt my decision to ‘come out’ was a choice to pursue what I believe is right at the expense of my career. People still see mental illness as a sign of weakness; I’ve attended many courses where trainers have implied that enduring massive amounts of stress without cracking is simply part of the job spec at the top. The more this perception is perpetuated, the less we will see the brightest talent rise to the top.

Let me give you an example of the current problem with perception: One employee takes a smoking break (out of sight, out of mind), and another takes some quiet time at their desk with headphones on and eyes closed. When the time comes for performance reviews, one is described as an easy-to-manage team player, and the other is aloof and has ‘personal issues’ that need to be better balanced with work. Yet which one is looking after their own wellbeing the best? Ways of taking a break should be something you discuss as a team, so that these kind of judgements are challenged from the outset.

A passport to better working environments

One of the best ways I’ve seen to make sure people are being supported as they should be is through a workplace adjustment ‘passport’ – a living document used to record both the formal adjustments someone has, as well as the more informal considerations. If you talk about these things up front, you can put to bed any judgements that might snowball if left alone.

Working from home should no longer be a euphemism for having a day off, and we should encourage people to do more of it – if you remove the travel time and the distraction of open-plan offices you often get a more productive employee. We must continue to build on the personalisation of workspaces, teach managers how to see potential in unconventional ways and keep talking about the painful stuff. All of this is already within our grasp, all we have to do is keep moving forwards.