Employers have a duty to take mental health seriously

mindA few years ago, while having a mild panic (who am I kidding it was a full-on meltdown) about my age, I realised that one of the advantages of advancing years is that I now give fewer flying…flamingos.

I have had to deal with a lot of ‘stuff’ over the years: no money, losing my job, horrible bosses, relationship woes, long working hours, operating in hostile territory, serious illness, not to mention living with the often exhausting day-to-day reality of being a black woman from a working-class background.

When I ask myself what is the worst that can happen, it normally already has. Some things I survived better than others. Some of the most challenging things life has thrown at me were actually brilliant. I thrived on them and they helped to make me the person I am now.

But not all of them – at times I have really struggled. Looking back, there was definitely a period of my life when I had quite serious depression relating to my personal life. It coincided with one of the most intense phases of my career – I was working incredibly long hours doing what, on paper, was an incredibly stressful job but, in truth, was the only thing that kept me going.

I knew there was a problem, but I was worried that if I sought professional help it would have a damaging impact on my career. I wish I had trusted my colleagues and my friends and family more. If I had, I am sure I would have recovered quicker. A lesson learned.

I was lucky. I survived. Things are different today. Thanks to campaigns such as Time To Change, the stigma around mental health has diminished. People are much more likely to be open about their mental wellbeing. It is a huge and welcome change in behaviour but there is still a long way to go. As individuals, as employers, as colleagues, we can do more.

As we mark World Mental Health Day and Public Health England launches its ‘Every Mind Matters’ campaign this month, I would encourage all of us to take greater care of our own mental wellbeing as much as we do our physical health. That means being more in-tune with your own wellbeing and understanding what it takes to keep you well.

This might include understanding the difference between feeling sad (which is not necessarily a bad thing) and finding it difficult to manage (which is); asking for help or support; finding time to look after yourself. As friends and colleagues, we should make sure we ask each other how we are doing and not shy away from colleagues who have had a tough time.

As employers, there is a lot more that we can and should do. I recognise this is not easy. Employers are often worried about people ‘swinging the lead’, claiming to be stressed when they aren’t. And yes, I am sure we can all think examples of that sort of thing, but we can also all find many more people who claim to have the flu conveniently on a Friday or a Monday. It doesn’t mean we don’t take the physical health of our teams seriously.

Employers that get to grips with this effectively are going to be the ones that thrive.

The business case is clear – people in good health (mental and physical) perform better at work. We also know that people’s expectations of employers and workplace culture are changing. They’re increasingly looking for workplaces where the employer actively supports the wellbeing of colleagues.

This means a bit more than posting an article about mindfulness on the intranet. It means understanding how workplace experiences impact on people’s mental health and how their mental wellbeing will impact on their performance and behaviour at work. It means ensuring all managers understand how they can support the mental wellbeing of their colleagues.

It means thinking about workload, working hours, flexible working. It means working with the entire workforce to create an inclusive culture where everyone is able to bring their best self to work and feels comfortable being open about the fact there are times their health (physical and/or mental) is stopping that. Employers that get to grips with this effectively are going to be the ones that thrive.

For my part, I try to make sure I ask how people are doing and waiting for an answer and if people deflect the question, asking again. I am also trying to be more open about my own mental health. That is not as easy but as the safety announcements on all flights tell you, you need to put your own mask on first before helping others.

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