Mental Health at Work – What Can Employees Do?

 

We recently featured a guest post on our Insider blog from HR and Wellbeing consultant Niki Rosenbaum which dealt with how employers can gain an awareness and understanding of mental health issues at work, and what they can do about these issues. 

In this post Niki looks at what this also means for employees who may be experiencing issues themselves, and helps them to  recognise signs when colleagues may need help too…

 

 

“To say that I was delighted by the overwhelmingly positive response of the HR UK community to a series of blogs highlighting the issues of mental health in the workplace may seem a strong word, but for someone who has encountered some pretty poor attitudes to mental illness in various workplaces over the years, I was thrilled to realise that there are HR practitioners – and by default, employers – who are rethinking their position and response to mental health issues.

So what does this mean for employees?

It’s obviously encouraging, as it indicates a growing sense of openness and awareness around matters such as depression, stress and long term disorders. Does it mean all employers now have all the information they need to effectively support staff? No. Does it mean you have the right advice for tackling your own – or a colleague’s – mental health problem? Of course not. But I hope it’s started something and we can challenge this together.

Understanding

There are many causes of mental illness, including outside influences (social, environmental, economic and political), bereavement and so on. While these can change our behaviour and make us harder to work with, they must be viewed differently from chemical imbalances that sit behind long term conditions. Feeling depressed in response to a traumatic life event or even period of stress is not the same as living with a condition such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (both of which can be managed very successfully with the right combination of support and appropriate medication). We should be wary of lumping every mental health matter into one mix and hoping we can react appropriately, whatever the finer details might be.

Fear

Mental ill-health is a sensitive subject and frightening for many, including those experiencing it. Imagine you had depression a year ago, or are on medication for bipolar disorder. You function well and can manage the daily tasks expected of you. You may not tell a prospective or current employer about it if you fear you’ll be rejected, or that it will harm your prospects for promotion.

There is a frustration around handling these things sensitively, no matter how hard we may want to do right by others. Often it is not a mental health issue itself that creates the problem, but not really understanding it. There is help out there.

Employees can:

Be aware of behavioural changes in yourself and others. If that guy on the desk opposite who’s usually punctual and smiling suddenly starts arriving late or with a face like thunder, make time to talk. Find out what’s happening. You could even be able to nip an issue in the bud, form a strong relationship that sees you both flourish, and save everyone a lot of anxiety and strain.

Work harder on developing communication. Don’t be afraid. With 1 in 4 of us experiencing some form of mental ill-health at some stage in our lives, it’s essential this is high on the agenda. Being unafraid to talk can add clarity and create a space for people to open up without fear of judgement.

Get the facts; challenge misconceptions. If we hope to defeat the stigma around this, we must challenge and cease using negative language such as “loony” and “ga-ga”. Someone who’s depressed because of a relationship breakdown or death of a loved one will not recognise themselves in this kind of abuse. The latest Time to Change campaign is astonishingly powerful and the resources and guidance on offer from Mind are well worth looking at.

Get good information. The Mind and Time to Change campaigns mentioned above aim to encourage open communication and tackle the stigma around mental health. Talk to experts – if you’re struggling chat to your GP. They’ll have heard similar stories and are not about to have you dragged away somewhere. Talk to friends and family – they love you and want to offer help and support. Talk to colleagues – over the years, I’ve been surprised by how many feel the need to share their story to help others.

If you’re worried about a colleague, ask yourself:

  • Has their behaviour changed markedly recently?
  • Have they lost interest in things they’d normally enjoy?
  • Do they seem tired, indecisive, uncommunicative, agitated, anxious, nervous or tearful?
  • Are you seeing any physical changes such as sudden weight gain or loss, haggard appearance, poor personal grooming etc?

Answering ‘yes’ to any of the above does not mean you should assume they are suffering some form of mental illness, but it does encourage us to watch over the wellbeing of others and react quickly with support, time, understanding and kindness. A simple gesture such as saying “I slept terribly last night – noisy neighbours! How about you?” can open up the channels of communication. This actually happened to me. The poor guy just crumpled, and started talking a mile a minute about his anxiety for his newborn daughter. Me? I shut up and let him release the tension he’d been carrying for weeks. He just needed to let it go.

By being aware and unafraid to offer a hand, you may nip something in the bud and save your colleague, yourself and your employer a world of heartache in the long run.

If you find yourself answering ‘Yes’ to the above about yourself, consider who you trust to react in the right way, and talk to them. Don’t fall into the trap of calling in sick hoping things will eventually shift back into ‘normality’ again.

All things, like weather, will pass – but allowing them to control your life and career until they do does you a terrible disservice.

People who have faced mental ill-health or disturbance don’t have two heads, half a brain or thick skin. They are not immediately obvious to you, somehow ‘changed’ or less capable, or impervious to negative attitudes and language. They’re still who they were – they just have something happening to them right now. Don’t react like they’re suddenly a stranger. Be mindful not to shut them out because you don’t understand.

As the writer of the blog which started the HR for Mental Health series says- “Please remember that I live amongst you.”

 

Niki Rosenbaum set up Treacletiger in 2011 with her partner Steve McGrane to offer practical, effective HR, mediation and workplace wellbeing support to small to medium-sized businesses. They have worked to promote better understanding of mental wellbeing at work for many years.