This week is mental health awareness week. Along with many others, I’m grateful that this type of illness is now properly being recognised as it is long overdue, and I know that during my working life, I have worked alongside many people who have suffered with mental illness and also I have not gone through life without experiencing extremely low mental health and anxiety.
In the recently published ACAS survey on mental health, 60% of employees have felt stressed or anxious about work in the last 12 months and most commonly this was attributed to their workload. Many struggle to speak to their line manager openly about problems; a third feel that a reduced workload would help; many feel that more flexible working opportunities to balance work and life better would improve their situation; and some need more clarity around what their role requires.
In the workplace, it can be particularly difficult to share how you are feeling. After all, we Brits are great at asking how everyone is, expecting them to say “yeah I’m fine” and definitely not being prepared for an answer along the lines of “well actually I’m feeling very low” before your colleague promptly bursts in to tears. There’s a great video here (If your mate's acting differently, #AskTwice) by Time to Change which reinforces this. I was once that colleague and, not ever having experienced this before, and coming from a background of just getting on with things, I found the whole experience very difficult to cope with. Unfortunately, my crying didn’t stop, and my manager clearly had no idea what to do. So, I ended up just walking out of the office and going for a walk … which clearly did not improve matters, gave me 30 minutes or so respite, and as soon as I was back in the office, I was in tears again!
This can happen to any of us. I know now that mental ill health can hit you like a cold, seemingly coming from nowhere. I have learned so much about it over my years in HR and yet I still have to challenge my reactions because I’m still learning, and also when someone is experiencing mental ill health, I know that this affects people in so many different ways.
Fortunately, in the workplace now there are many different tools available to managers and staff to help recognise symptoms and be able to talk more openly to each other about mental ill health as well as physical ill health. It has also helped that some with a higher public profile have been able to share about their struggles with mental health in the past: people like Prince Harry, Fearne Cotton, Cara Delevingne and Stephen Fry to name but a few. Their battles have been against depression, anxiety, low mood and they had to overcome extremely difficult symptoms of heart palpitations, panic attacks, profuse sweating, utter low mood and they’ve all had to learn to control this which is not easy.
There are many ways in which people can get help with these symptoms – much of this will come down to trial and error I expect. Some public figures have openly offered up their suggestions that have helped them which include physical activity, practising mindfulness using something like the headspace app, meditation, going for a walk, breathing in fresh air and listening to music.
Within the workplace managers and colleagues can help each other by being more attuned to mental ill health and having a working environment which encourages open communication. Managers should be confident supporting staff, be able to spot the signs of mental ill health, be able to have sensitive conversations with their staff and offer support. Having in place appropriate policies – ideally written by managers and staff together – gives a framework in which to embed this culture.
Employers have a duty of care to their staff and staff are attracted to workplaces that are open, supportive and inclusive. If you would like any assistance in drafting a mental health policy, or health and well-being policy then please contact me at [email protected]