Opening up about mental health at work

I would rather tell an employer I have excruciating period pain or terrible diarrhoea than say I need to take a day off for my mental health. Despite the mental health awareness days, mindfulness at work courses and stigma-bashing posters, many of us still feel that our bosses are not open to accommodating mental illness – and we may be right.

Andrew Berrie, employer programme manager at the Time to Change campaign, says nine in 10 people who experience mental health problems report facing stigma and discrimination. More than half say they experience that stigma the most at work, meaning many do not feel they can talk openly with their line manager. Things are improving, says Berrie – but the stigma means that, like me, 95% of employees would prefer to call in sick with a made-up reason, rather than reveal the truth about their poor mental health.

Geoff McDonald is co-founder of minds@work, a network of professionals seeking to build psychologically healthy workplaces. He says: “I think there is still a huge disconnect between what senior leaders think the culture and openness is, and what it actually feels like on the frontline, whether or not you can have those conversations.” He tells of a senior executive who walked into a mindfulness class his company was running, surveyed the room and said: “So, these are the people who can’t cope in my business.” The organisation had ticked a box, but not changed the culture of intolerance that fosters judgment of those who struggle. We are making progress, McDonald says, but we are “still at the foothills of climbing Mount Everest”.

It is not just tokenism we are smelling, but fear, too, he says. “There has been a lot of campaigning, awareness-building, encouraging people to talk – but I think there is still this fear of not knowing what to do or say, even at the simplest of levels.” He says line managers often confess that they are fearful of saying the wrong thing, telling him that if someone came to them saying they were suffering from anxiety, they wouldn’t know how to handle it.

Clinical psychologist Dr Beverley Flint, from Camden and Islington NHS Mental Health foundation trust, runs C&I Wellbeing, offering mental health support training for managers and HR staff. She says many businesses and organisations are blind to the reality of what their employees are going through.

When she meets employers who tell her they “don’t have a problem with mental health” in their workplace, she says she raises an eyebrow. “I tell them: ‘But you do, you just don’t know about it. You will have people in the workplace who have a diagnosis – I’d love to see your staff retention data.’ People get annoyed with me when I say that.”

Full story: Guardian

Author: Philip Challinor
Posted on: 10th April 2019