I talk a lot about positive mental health habits that people can do, such as gratitude, meditation, or using positive affirmations, however there are two sides to mental health.
I'm talking about the side of mental health we avoid talking about, the side that makes us feel embarrassed, the one that has a stigma and makes people feel uncomfortable - mental health problems. The truth is that throughout our lives we are very likely to experience a mental health problem, temporary or longer-term. I certainly experienced depression as a teenager and considered whether the way out of the overwhelming emotions was to attempt suicide. I didn't, but I did see my GP and had counselling.
Nowadays, I couldn't cope with the emotional demands of my work, without consideration to my mental health. Over course of my career I have seen some scary mental health problems, prior to training to be a teacher I was a support worker in some secure and acute mental health wards, working with adolescents up to the elderly. As a behaviour specialist, I know I support schools, colleges and employers with understanding psychology and behaviour, but that is based on the background of having worked with some of the most troubled young people in the country. All of that is only possible by being able to talk about my mental health, reflecting on the many thoughts happening in my mind and letting go of them as necessary.
I'm currently sat at home busy preparing for a conference on mental health in the workplace that I'm chairing and it occurs to me that much of the problems arise because people don't know how to deal with their emotions at times. There's a real taboo about talking about the times we are struggling. Many are embarrassed they do not know what to say or how to act, some are scared that this hidden enemy could be lurking in any of us (which truth be told it can be).
So the question I will be asking the conference is "should employers be doing more to break this stigma?"
Many mental health symptoms are decreased through having access to a supportive network - work is where we spend much of our waking hours, surely there could be something employers can do?
'But, it's a very complex subject, we need professionals...' is the excuse I have heard too many times. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (who write the NHS guidelines) actually consider people's support network so important that two out of eight factors that could have contributed to the development and severity of a mental problem relate to this area.
Some employers do active health promotion schemes, education or classes. Others actively aim to identify the causes of workplace problem that contribute to mental health problems. But this needs to be wider than that, true mental health support in the workplace needs to involve the whole workforce.
In a key-note I gave last year I covered some practical things that could be done to break the taboo:
- Talk about it - stop avoiding it, it's taking over their life, so don't let it be the elephant in the room!
- Normalise it - it's alright to be overwhelmed at times, we all experience it in our lives, make sure you express it yourself.
- Know how to listen - people are great at talking, but awful at listening, if you are having a supportive conversation, then for you much of the conversation should actually be in silence whilst you give them the space to think and talk about their concerns.
- Mentoring - one of the best mechanisms I consider to put in place is peer mentoring - this instantly removes the "I can't talk about this to my boss" issue.
- Make sure you recognise the safe ways of dealing with emotions - bottling up, suppressing, acting out, withdrawing or dumping are not good.
- Knowing when to get professional help - if a mental health problem is affecting someone's daily quality of life, then that's the time to seek help.
- Positive mental health habits - we spend so long talking about "mental health" being a bad thing, look at the phrase - it implies a positive. Things like gratitude, affirmations, meditation, exercise or yoga classes all contribute to positive mental wellbeing.
In conclusion, there are many low-level things that can be done to support people's mental health. As employers we share a duty of care for our employees, that must include supporting their emotional wellbeing.