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Emerging From Darkness - Breaking the Mental Health Taboo at Work

01/08/2016 13:11 | Updated 02 August 2016

At some point in our lives we will either experience or know someone who has experienced some form of mental health issue. In fact, according to the mental health charity, Mind, 1 in 4 experience a mental health problem each year. Mental health faces many barriers. Not only is the root cause of most mental illnesses difficult to determine, but they are not as obvious as physical conditions, which means that they can often go undetected.

Mental health appears to be facing one of its toughest challenges within the workplace. Research released by the CIPD revealed that in the past 12 months, 31% of employees have experienced poor mental health at work, with only 44% feeling confident in sharing this with their managers. Whilst strides have been made in tackling the stigma attached to mental health, more needs to be done to create an open and supportive culture surrounding mental health at work.

The belief that talking about our feelings somehow equates to weakness is something that has been a longstanding feature in society. As with any deep-seated beliefs, breaking the cycle requires turning off the auto-pilot response, changing our behaviour and opening channels of communication. Of course all of this takes time. Whether you believe the stigma exists in your workplace or not, if there is a perceived level of stigma attached to mental health in your organisation, then this can be detrimental to the wellbeing of your employees.

We are constantly exposed to stressors in the workplace. From excessive workloads and impending deadlines to challenging professional relationships, the workplace is a demanding environment. Whilst exposure to stress in the short term can be positive by increasing our motivation, long term exposure to these stressors, particularly for those already experiencing poor mental health can have serious consequences.

How can we address the issue?

1. Communication

Mental illness feeds on a person's feelings of loneliness and isolation. People who are experiencing mental health issues may feel embarrassed, so much so, that they feel too ashamed to come forward. This is where a change needs to happen. Assessing how mental health is discussed at work is an important part of creating an open culture when it comes to increasing positive mental health and wellbeing.

Perception is everything. If employers believe that their employers approach mental health in a negative light, then the cycle created by the stigma will never be broken. Having strong leadership who prioritise the creation of an open working culture by including their employees in key decision-making will go a long way in establishing a workplace which values positive mental health.

2. Education

Mental health is often misunderstood. Common misconceptions include the belief that people are in control their mental illness and that they will feel better if they cheer up and stop worrying. It is these misconceptions that can actually increase the feelings of shame felt by those experiencing mental illness.

Employers may never fully understand the complexity of mental illness. However, what employers can do is educate themselves and their employees regarding mental health. This may include bringing in professionals to speak about the importance of mental health, including how to spot the signs of poor mental health and what methods can be used to proactively manage stress. Education is one of the best defences against ignorance surrounding mental health, breaking down any barriers that may block the progression of supporting people with mental illnesses.

3. Monitoring

How can we work towards improving mental health if employers aren't aware of its presence in the workplace? Gauging a sense of how your employees are feeling can start with something as simple as a conversation. This will help establish a stronger employer-employee relationship, whilst opening up clearer channels of communication.

As a long term strategy, implementing staff satisfaction surveys, which cover mental health and wellbeing can help determine areas which areas need to be addressed and the scale of any potential mental health issues in your organisation. Additionally, mental health should included in any appraisal or staff feedback process to ensure there is a consistent dialogue between managers and employees.

4. Access to support

Employers may need to be multifaceted in business, but sometimes, particularly in areas regarding an employee's health, extra support is needed. Giving employees access to confidential support from trained counsellors via a telephone service, for example, can provide a secure place for employees to discuss their issues and seek advice. Not only will this encourage people to come forward about mental health concerns, but it will also ensure that any issues raised are being addressed and dealt with in a professional manner.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that according to the CIPD "42% of employees have experienced poor mental health at work." In fact, CIPD research indicated 31% of employees have experienced poor mental health at work.

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