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Is the Modern Workplace Ready to Talk About Mental Ill Health?

26/05/2016 10:42 | Updated 26 May 2016

There is a lot of attention around mental health in the media at the moment. Yet it appears that even with this interest and desired openness in the subject, those who actually live with mental ill health remain largely quiet. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the workplace.

We know that many people are worried to talk about their mental health at work; our recent research showed that 29 per cent were too embarrassed to do so. Employees are concerned about how this could impact their career prospects, and mangers are embarrassed or uncomfortable about discussing mental health with their employee, more so than any physical health concern.

If both parties are feeling awkward about the conversation; how can we overcome that?

Certainly, the media and celebrity attention the subject has attracted (including openness from the likes of Stephen Fry, Cara Delevingne and Beyoncé to name a few) can help to make it more 'normal'. But are we ready to have these conversations at work?

Firstly, in order to be able to do so, business leaders, managers and supervisors need to feel adequately informed and supported. Do they know enough about mental health and their organisation's policies and procedures to be able to offer guidance to employees? If not, it might be time for some training. Managers don't have to be experts in the subject but, feeling able to discuss wellbeing freely with their teams and point them to sources of help without fear of upsetting them or of being chastised, is key.

Likewise, employers should encourage employees to have conversations about their mental wellbeing with their managers. Conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression can adversely affect an employee's performance. Offering reassurance that they can talk to their manager about their concerns (and evidencing this through positive, supportive behaviour) will help to tackle the stigma that exists around mental ill health. Employees whose work puts them into potentially stressful situations such as dealing with customer complaints or working to tight deadlines, may also find stress management training helpful. Not only can this help them to deal more effectively with pressure, it can also help them to spot signs that colleagues in a similar situation might need support. This openness should be delivered from the top down, with everyone in the office displaying this attitude, creating an inclusive culture.

Good employers understand that it's in their interest to create a work environment where employees know they can be open and honest with their manager without fear of being judged or disadvantaged. Equally, managers need to be properly trained and supported so they are truly empowered to have conversations with their employees about how they really are. Otherwise, simply no progress will be made.

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