People manage their mental health in different ways but unlike our physical health accessing advice, getting support and the right sort of help for maintaining our mental wellness hasn’t been as simple as calling the GP for an appointment, going to the surgery, and getting a prescription. Depression, trauma/PTSD, anxiety, stress, are conditions which can – and do – affect anyone, at any time.
We spend most of our lives in our workplace, whether it’s in an office, a factory, out in a field, on the high seas, or working from home, our workplaces play a huge role in shaping our state of mind and in driving how we perceive, react and respond to situations.
Workplaces are an interesting melting pot of people. Not just their different backgrounds, ethnicities and age groups, there are also the unseen aspects of people and their lives, their stories and their experiences which have shaped them and define who they are, and yet we usually know either very little or nothing at all about them and what makes them tick, what drives them, how they see themselves, and why they are who they are.
I always keep in mind the old saying about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, in my view it best sums up how and why we all need to be aware of the unknown unknowns in the workplace especially when we think about mental health. And not just at work but also in our interest groups, networks, circles of friends, in our neighbourhoods and in our communities.
Throughout my career I’ve had experiences in dealing with those “difficult employees” who were off on “long-term sickness” due to stress; it’s fair to say that years ago it was generally regarded by many – including CEOs and executives as well as the general workforce – that the culprits were skiving or taking an extended sickie to avoid doing their job while still enjoying the benefits of the position.
Back then the whole “stress” situation was dealt with like a delicate dance around the corridors in which only HR and the appropriate line manager would be involved, kid gloves on and handling the stressed employee delicately like porcelain for fear of prodding the hibernating bear into taking aggressive, retaliatory action against the company. In these situations the focus was more geared towards the employment law legalities and managing the potential financial impact on the company rather than looking at how the company could take a more strategic approach to addressing how to get an employee back into a workplace which would be not only welcoming but also aware, supportive, encouraging and sympathetic, and without stigma and repercussions. Although there was some level of sympathy for the “difficult employee”, it was always said (behind closed doors) that the place would be better off without him or her the sooner they decide to just take a few months in lieu as a pay-off and go away for good.
Taking a long, hard look at the culture of the workplace – the working habits, the behaviour of the superiors and managers, communication, and the tone set by the leadership – was rarely, or usually never, up for discussion.
In other words:
- there was no awareness of how or why it happened: how did we get there, are / were we part of the problem?
- the company had no strategy for addressing how to prevent the next case,
- creating a world of work where the benefits of tackling the root cause of the problem was never ever considered – no vision, no real self-analysis, no lightbulb moment.
There are many stories out there of people in high pressure positions who have self-managed their mental health.
One of the most famous examples is that of Sir Winston Churchill. For all his resilience and strength he was prone to bouts of depression, his “black dog” as he referred to it. His way of managing it was to work long hours and keep his mind occupied.
This approach is not unusual, and millions around the world do just that to fight off depression and other mental health challenges. For some it works and for many others, it doesn’t; trying to work through depression or prolonged anxiety or stress can only make it worse, often with devastating consequences for the individual, their families, and their colleagues.
Others have proactively highlighted the need to take time off for their mental wellness and have done just that – shutdown the computer, switched off the ‘phone, and taken a break, only to return in far better mental and physical shape ready to tackle the most daunting challenges.
It’s important we recognise that people handle – or don’t handle – their mental health in a way that is most effective for them.
One final word on Work-Life Balance – something which is often talked about, rarely is it a reality. It’s a tired cliché. Some organisations go out of their way to highlight their credentials when it comes to Work-Life Balance:
- family friendly
- flexible working hours
- work from home policies
- no meetings after 5 pm
- leave your phone at home when you go on vacation,
and on it goes. But very rarely is this the reality in our globalised and interconnected world.
Yet this very simple concept, if followed and practised at every level of an organisation, could just help to make enough of a difference in tipping the balance when it comes to helping to improve mental health in the workplace.
But it has to be driven by the leadership as part of de-stigmatising mental health.
Mental health is no longer taboo, it is no longer an outlier, it is no longer the elephant in the room.
As business leaders we can all play our part in pointing out the elephant in the room, embracing it as common ground and as a unifying factor which can drive a healthier, more harmonious, and successful workplace.