There is a shocking figure out there that most of us are used to hearing by now, and it goes like this:
1 in 4 of us WILL suffer with mental health difficulties at some point in our life.
It could be a one off, something you experience at several points in your life, or it may even be an illness you struggle with throughout your life.
What that means, in real terms, is that it is very likely that at any given point there is at least one person in your ‘circle’ battling the challenges of mental ill-health.
Let’s talk about mental illness
As awareness grows and stigmas are broken the good news is that more people feel empowered to speak out and ask for help without feeling ashamed of their struggles. The bad news is that there are very few places where the supply of mental health support services matches the demand.
This means we should all perhaps be taking some responsibility for the support of family, friends, colleagues and neighbours who may be struggling with mental health difficulties.
People in full-time employment spend over 2,000 hours a year at work. With that in mind, I don’t think there could possibly be a better place to improve mental health support systems and networks.
Although the stereotypes and stigmas that once shunned people with mental health issues into silence are finally being broken down, this doesn’t mean our understanding has improved. The fact is that people who themselves have struggled with mental health issues can often be no more aware of how to support others in similar situations.
This is primarily because no two people suffering mental health issues are affected in the same way. While the symptoms are often very similar, the way symptoms affect each person can differ dramatically, and there is no miracle cure.
Definitions, symptoms and treatments
What makes things even more difficult is the vast number of symptoms. People tend to suffer with a different variation of those most commonly experienced, making treatment harder to correctly prescribe. A combination of treatments is often required to address the mixture of symptoms and causes.
Mental illnesses can be managed with a combination of the following treatments (to name just a few):
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
- Physical activity
- Support groups
- Friend and family intervention
- Changes to working environment or hours
Depending on the root cause of the illness even a holiday or vacation could help.
Mental illness is often categorised as either clinical or situational, and while some may disagree, it’s my belief that an individual can experience both simultaneously as well as separately. I’ve personally suffered with bouts of depression caused by both, sometimes together and other times one without the other.
Clinical depression is often caused by chemical factors, including chemical imbalances such as too much or not enough serotonin. Chemical factors also include changes in the body that directly affect mental wellness, for example poor diet and environmental exposures. Genetic disorders are another common cause.
Clinical depression is very stigmatised, and opinions are hard to challenge as those around a sufferer may be thinking that the person has “nothing to be depressed about”.
Situational refers to things going on in a person’s life, so that could be lack of financial security, bereavement, poor social life, breakdown of a relationship or a challenging working environment. What is difficult to explain about situational illnesses is that while stress, anxiety and depression are often triggered by a traumatic experience or difficult period in someone’s life, not everyone going through such experiences will suffer a mental illness as a result. The difference is about how the person copes with the event and what issues they develop because of it.
Getting the support you need
A doctor or someone trained to support people with mental health issues would be able to help discuss what a person is going through and decide whether it’s a mental health issue that needs treatment and support.
It gets more complicated if it’s not a mental health issue, as a doctor or other trained professional would still be able to refer a person to a support group or information centre – it would just be one more specific to their current situation and related to how to improve it or manage it, rather than a specific mental health service.
What makes mental illness even more difficult to effectively treat is that one person can have more than a single factor contributing to a condition, so they could be suffering the effects of a serotonin deficiency whilst also finding it difficult to cope with a negative working environment.
The two could then combine, leading to a bigger and more difficult problem to manage!
The good news is that if you are an employer, not only could you almost completely eradicate working environment triggers, but you could also be the support mechanism to make dealing with the effects of other triggers more manageable for someone.
Making workplace mental health a priority
As an employer you may be thinking that there’s no way that you could help improve the mental health of someone grieving a loved one, for example. As someone who has suffered a combination of both chemical and situational clinical depression throughout the past decade of my life, I beg to disagree!
One of my darkest periods was working with an employer who did not understand or support me through my condition, ultimately prolonging my illness. Once I had the right medication to manage my chemical symptoms, I was left with situational mental health problems because of the way I was managed within the workplace.
My story has been shared far and wide already but today my focus is not on what was wrong with my experience, but on how I think workplaces can improve the overall mental health of their workforce.
Before we go into my six-step plan for a healthy workforce I want to reinforce why workplaces should be creating a Mental Health at Work Plan.
Benefits of workplace mental health support
It’s business critical. Mental health intervention and support has been proven to save money.
The Stevenson and Farmer Thriving at Work report conducted in 2017 estimated that £33-42 billion is the annual cost to UK employers who do not appropriately manage their employees’ mental health.
Staff absence, reduced staff productivity, the cost of temporary/cover staff and costs associated with a high staff turnover contribute to this shocking figure. Figures released by the UK’s Health & Safety Executive in 2017/18 show there were 595,000 workers suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety (new or long-standing) who contributed to 15.4 million working days lost, with work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounting for 57% of total sick days.
Main work factors cited by respondents were workload pressures, tight deadlines, too much responsibility and lack of managerial support. Looking at the above numbers, you must wonder if poor management of mental illness is what is causing new instances of situational mental illness amongst our workforce. And of course, a reduction in team numbers puts more pressure on the rest of the team, generating even bigger workloads at a company offering limited or no mental health support to its staff.
I am not so naive as to consider that a Mental Health at Work Plan is a cure-all for mental illness. However, I am confident that this plan could significantly reduce the number of sick days taken by helping staff to seek services to support their recovery.
So, let’s take a look at what needs to be done.
While the plan is aimed at employers, as an employee you can use the below to introduce the idea of using a Mental Health at Work Plan to management.
Mental Health at Work Plan
1. Encourage physical activity
Physical activity creates hormones and chemicals in your body which have natural stress and depression busting qualities, as does vitamin D which comes from being outside in the sunshine.
Where possible arrange outdoor activities that suit everyone from the 16-year-old Apprentice Receptionist to your 65-year-old Engineer.
It is about encouraging your team to be active and more importantly, encouraging them to be active together. You could arrange activities like 5-a-side soccer, netball, squash tournaments, hikes, marathons, bike rides or just about anything you can think of.
This type of activity builds team spirit and encourages colleagues to build friendships as well as professional relationship. These friendships can be invaluable when it comes to someone’s time of need.
You can arrange events or activities as little or as often as you like, but ideally twice a year or more to get at least some of the benefits mentioned here.
2. Pick someone to be a Mental Health Champion
Your Mental Health Champion would be someone who was given training on how to identify and support colleagues with mental health issues. Their training should be kept fully up-to-date with a refresher course delivered annually. They should also be able to refer colleagues to a mental health team within the local area for assessment when they think urgent intervention is required.
This person could be trained to counsel in large organisations or they could have contacts, such as local counsellors, therapists and other appropriate services.
Your Mental Health Champion should have the time to liaise with medical professionals and take advice regarding supporting a person at work, all with the patient’s consent of course. This interaction could mean decisions are made to reduce someone’s hours whilst they titrate onto a new medication, or by allowing someone time off to attend appointments for example.
They should have access to information on who to contact in emergencies for someone who is critically ill.
They could also help the person communicate with their colleagues and superiors to help others understand what is going on and how best to support them, and whether they need any adaptations to their working day.
If someone is struggling with the perception of others in their workplace or department, the Mental Health Champion could arrange training sessions or sponsored coffee and cake mornings to allow time to discuss and learn about what having a mental health issue is like and how to support each other.
3. Create mental health questionnaires
There are hundreds of free resources on the internet to help manage mental health at work and they’re there to be used. Research different types of mental health questionnaires and then create your own, or use a ready-made questionnaire that best suits your aims.
You can then analyse the results to see if there are trends; for example, if the marketing team seem to have a poorer attitude to their working life than the procurement team you could see what support could be offered to support the department.
Encourage staff to fill the forms in several times a year and with as much information as possible.
Departmental issues often arise from lack of natural lighting, having someone in the team who is a bully, poor management or large or unmanageable workloads.
It may be that you find you are having a large amount of staff absence due to stress and discover that it is workload related. Recruiting another member to the team can improve workload and attendance dramatically, improving mental health.
You may also need to audit workloads to discover that someone in the team is not managing their workload effectively, leaving others to pick up the pieces.
Managing someone who is not pulling their weight can change the way everyone else feels about their jobs and their value to the company.
4. Create a mental health policy document
Often, people with mental health issues are poorly managed due to the manager simply being unaware of how to support their team members through these issues.
This often leaves managers with no other option than to follow a standard sickness policy resulting in harsh penalties for being mentally unwell.
Creating a policy for managing staff with mental health issues gives managers a pathway to follow with a more compassionate route detailed. This could mean that once two or more mental health issues have caused absence, they are referred to the Mental Health Champion to discuss any support they require in the workplace, and the Champion then manages their care going forward.
As the trained professional, they would be able to arrange adaptations to working responsibilities and routines in line with their own training and advice from medical professionals. More importantly, they could point someone in the right direction to get the help they need before they even know they need it.
5. Run events and make posters or leaflets available to staff
Coffee and cake mornings are becoming a new trend for employers who want to show their staff they understand mental health issues and are here to listen and support people suffering.
Such an event takes very little organisation and can be run over a lunch break if you are concerned about losing working hours. The idea is that you give the coffee morning a theme and let people know in advance that it’s intended to help create a good mental health culture within the workplace.
Workplaces often run a ‘bake off’ or a ‘tuck shop’ with cakes to raise money for the vital work done by mental health charities, which can really help improve understanding of events and prompt topical conversation. These coffee and cake events can be run as infrequently as annually without losing their value.
Adding posters and take away leaflets around the workplace about where to get help in the event of mental illness can also help people reach out for help when they perhaps otherwise wouldn’t have felt up to it, or wouldn’t have known where to go.
6. Be transparent
If you yourself have suffered with mental illness you can be the person who speaks out. Standing up and openly sharing your experiences of mental illness will make your team more likely to feel comfortable coming to you in their hard times.
I have found that once I tell someone I have suffered with mental health issues, a chorus of “me too” is often heard in return.
Those who haven’t suffered often have a close friend or family member that has.
If you have previously suffered and are now managing your condition adequately it is even more important to speak out. Although it can be very difficult to discuss our hardest times, showing others that you have had those times but have come out the other side gives sufferers a little hope and positivity that they will be OK too.
For people considering suicide due to extreme mental illness, your story could save a life. The greatest tool any of us have in supporting others is our own experience.
Suggesting activities or therapies we found helped for us or for those we know could give someone the right train of thought to realise what they need. You should never consider your experiences as a period of weakness, as your story has value; to have suffered mental illness and emerged stronger at the other side is something I believe people should be incredibly proud of.
And now to conclude…
The six steps listed above are not complex: five of the six could be arranged without costing the company anything but a little time, whilst delivering reduced sickness rates, lower staff turnover, improved attrition and most importantly, a healthy workforce.
- A workforce who feel valued and understood.
- A workforce that want to give back to a company that is looking after them and their needs.
- The type of workforce that is driven to maintain a company’s image and standards when acting on their behalf.
Many employers never benefit from these qualities because their workforce is frequently in crisis, rather than thinking of the improvements that could be made. It doesn’t have to be this way and I truly feel there is nothing in the above plan that should be too difficult to implement.
Having implemented the above I imagine the only difficulty will be trying to understand why you’d not thought of it sooner…