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World Health Day: Let's Talk About Depression And Anxiety In The Workplace

07/04/2017 14:41 BST | Updated 07/04/2017 14:41 BST

A few years ago my long standing back pain turned into a diagnosis of spinal stenosis brought on by too much running, I was ironically informed. As challenging as it was at the time, I wore that diagnosis as a badge of honour - it was okay to have worn my back out!

Contrast that to the bleak depths of a dismal English winter about 10 years ago, when as a GP I recognised that my feelings of lethargy and lack of enjoyment might mean that I was 'feeling low' and in my darker moments I may even be depressed. And there was no way I was going to discuss that with anyone, particularly other doctors, who in hindsight may well have felt the same.

It's easy to talk about physical illness; it's legit and it's acceptable. But how rarely do we open up, even to our loved ones, about our feelings?

Over the years we've made some progress, particularly in treatment options, but quite honestly our comfort in society to talk about mental health has been glacial in its pace. So how can we change this? And don't you just hate that term 'mental health'? If ever there was a need to rebrand...here it is.

The World Health Organization estimates that one in four people will be affected by a mental health problem at some point in their lives. At any one time in the UK, NHS data shows that one in six people will be experiencing a common mental health problem like depression or anxiety. So you will know a lot of people whose lives are just not as much fun as they'd like them to be. Look around in the office: one in four, a staggeringly large number.

Friday 7 April marks World Health Day, and this year's campaign is focused on depression. With half of the world's population in employment, the workplace is an area where we can make a big difference. After all it's where we spend a large chunk of our lives. So bringing conversations on mental wellbeing into the workplace and not just confining them to the hushed inner sanctum of the doctors' surgery has huge potential.

This affects us all. You and your colleagues will have times when you are feeling good, on form and energised, and there will be times when life's just not fun. For me it was as if the colour had been taken out of life: everything was just dull, monochrome.

Too many of us deal with it in silence. Employees are scared to speak out in case it affects job prospects and colleagues don't know how to help. But mental health is always going to be part of our working lives. It's how we deal with it that counts.

At Bupa, our Smile programme promotes the health and wellbeing of our own people and focuses on four key pillars - healthy bodies, healthy minds, healthy culture and healthy places, offering support for any mental health challenges our people may face. It includes 24/7 specialist support lines, stress management and resilience programmes, and mindfulness courses.

Here are some of the things we've learnt about supporting colleagues with common mental health problems like depression and anxiety:

• Talk openly about mental health

Lots of people find it hard to be open about how they're feeling. But it can make it easier if others are open about their own experiences and difficulties. You don't have to share your life story, but being honest about how things are going for you can help make conversations about our mental health as normal as conversations about our physical health. Try responding to 'how are you?' a little more honestly and see what happens.

• Look for - and talk about - early signs of poor mental health

Some common early signs of depression and anxiety are poor concentration, low mood, tearfulness, tiredness and lack of energy, talking less and avoiding social activities, drinking more alcohol and irritability and short temper.

If you notice any of these signs in your colleagues, check in with them. It's sometimes easier if you start the conversation. Use the power of "how are you?" A simple but profound question if given the space it deserves.

Remember everyone is different. Talk to your colleagues about how they are feeling. You don't need to make a diagnosis - the most important thing you can do is to get people to talk about how they are feeling and any changes they have noticed in their lives. The better you know each other, the easier it will be to offer the right support at the right time.

• Find out more

If you haven't experienced a mental health problem, it can be hard to understand how it feels. Read up on depression and anxiety. Seek out personal stories and experiences from others online.

But don't just read about it. Ask your colleague what they need and how you can help them. They won't be upset or offended. If at first it feels too uncomfortable to do this face to face, write it down.

• Let them know you're there - but remember you don't have to 'solve' things for them

It's too easy to do nothing because you don't think you can help. But you don't have to solve everything. Little things can make a difference too. For example, depression and anxiety can make you feel distant and alienated from people around you. Send an email or text and let your colleague know you are thinking of them.

It isn't always simple. Sometimes it feels strange, uncomfortable or awkward. But the more you do it, the easier it gets. Opening conversations and sharing experiences are vital steps towards a workplace where everyone, whether they have a physical or a mental health problem, gets the support they need at the time they need it most. Let's talk.