THE BLOG

Stamping Out the Stigma of Mental Health at Work

20/05/2015 09:15 BST | Updated 19/05/2016 10:59 BST

The buzz surrounding this year's Mental Health Awareness week, seemed to be louder than ever which can only be positive news in changing understanding of what mental ill health actually means.

When I think back to even five years ago, it was certainly a topic that was far more taboo than today. You only have to look at film, television, newspapers and magazines to see how the issue has become a mainstream conversation. More and more public figures are talking openly about their experiences like Alistair Campbell and Stephen Fry.

It is a well-used statistic that one in four of us will suffer from a mental health condition at some point in our lives. The Mental Health Foundation found that seven out of 10 managers has managed someone with a diagnosed or a suspected mental illness.

When it comes to work, the term 'mental ill health' still holds certain stigmas - it is something that we just don't talk openly about and often the illness will remain completely hidden.

Of course, the definition of mental ill health can vary greatly, from a short-term one-off incident right through to a life-long condition, but the issue that employers can really help to mitigate is stress, which is very common, and often a trigger for more serious conditions.

I wanted to understand more about the role a manager can have in identifying and supporting colleagues who may to suffering. Amy Bullock heads up our Leeds office.

"I wouldn't say that I have extensive knowledge of mental health issues, but I feel as a team manager I have a duty of care to ensure that my team are all happy and healthy. As I know my team members very well it would become apparent pretty quickly if something wasn't right. Any changes in personality or in behaviour would be the first signs - prolonged sickness, lateness etc would all be indicators that all is not well."

"Ideally we want to prevent issues from arising in the first instance. Our job is high pressure and as such, we spend a lot of time assisting staff with stress management, ensuring the correct support is in place and constantly reviewing workloads so it doesn't get on top of anyone."

My colleague Nikki Graham, who leads our Derby office, has experience of managing a team member suffering from mental ill health.

"Trying to help a colleague who is suffering is incredibly challenging. It's similar with your friends or family. At first, the instinct is to want to support them in whatever way you can, but as time goes on even the most tolerant person can become impatient, often saying the wrong thing. Unless you have personal experience of depression, it is very hard to know that in actuality, all a person wants is to feel happy and positive, but they have no idea of how to do that, and often their belief is that they never will."

"My team member suffered from stress over a period of approximately six months. Whilst they were able to be in work, with occasional time off, the stress affected their performance and eventually they decided to leave the business. When I asked them if they felt we could have done anything differently, the only suggestion was the option of counselling. I fed this back to the management team to look at what we can do in the future."

To be entirely Machiavellian, reducing stress or educating our teams on how to manage stress is a worthwhile investment for all businesses. 50% of long term absences are due to mental ill health - this is more common than back pain, and there are simple ways for a business, no matter how small to get the basics right in my opinion.

Publicising links to support and guidance and having a mental health policy which is readily available is the first easy step. Managers should be approachable with processes in place to ensure that workloads are manageable and check in on anything significant happening at home.

In addition engaging in campaigns like Mental Health Awareness week is a great way to let colleagues know that it doesn't have to be something that they deal with along. Last week at Sellick Partnership we promoted mindfulness to our teams as part of the campaign and also building awareness of the counselling service which is now included in our medical benefit package.

The trouble is that stress is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to mental ill health. With more significant illnesses like schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder I think most of the population are completely clueless, and I can't help but think that there should be more specific guidelines on hiring, retaining and developing employees who suffer with these conditions. Clearer guidance might counteract the fear that a manager has of 'doing the wrong thing' and prevent discrimination in employment.

The charity Mind tells us that working is beneficial to the management of mental health issues; it provides routine, companionship and a sense of purpose. But as a society we have to find a way for people to talk about these issues, without fear of judgement or fear for their job. In order to reduce the stigma we must ensure that we continue to learn more about mental health, acknowledge the seriousness of it and support our friends and colleagues. Just like we would if they had a physical illness.