Mental health in the workplace – the final frontier!

mental health in the workplaceLast week I got to wear my trainer hat as I delivered 2 mental health awareness workshops through See Change – the national mental health stigma reduction partnership. The workshops are aimed at breaking down stigma in what is regarded as the final frontier – the workplace! Thankfully there are conversations around mental health happening at a national level, in schools and colleges, through the media, in the community and even around kitchen tables. However, conversations in the workplace are less frequent as stigma prevents people from being open and honest about their mental health. Understandably there is quite a bit of fear around this as doing so can affect our relationship with our colleagues or manager and sadly even jeopardize our job. Even though Ireland has robust anti-discrimination legislation that prohibits less favorable treatment of a person who has a disability – which includes mental health, along with the health & safety at work act that sets out clearly the employer’s duty of care which also extends to the mental health of the employee – people are still reluctant to speak openly about their mental health in the workplace.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD:

“Increasing job insecurity and pressure in today’s workplaces could drive a rise in mental health problems in the years ahead. The share of workers exposed to work-related stress, or job strain, has increased in the past decade all across the OECD. And in the current economic climate, more and more people are worried about their job security”.

So mental health is the big white elephant in the workplace and the longer we take to talk about it the bigger it’s going to get!

Leave your problems at home – impossible!

Every time I talk about mental health in the workplace I am reminded of what I was told when I joined the airline industry as cabin crew when I was just 21 years old. Once the make-up and uniform is on you leave your problems at home. Unfortunately this mentality is endemic in workplaces even to this day especially in the corporate world.

However the reality is – it’s humanly impossible to keep your problems at home, just like you can’t keep your sexual orientation, ethnicity, family status… along with the myriad of other things that make us who we are – nor should we have to. Similarly we can’t also segregate people with mental health difficulties as historically in this country we’ve learned at our own expense that this just creates over-crowded psychiatric institutions. Having mental health problems is part and parcel of the human experience – full stop!

Getting the job done AND starting the conversation is possible!

Also we must take into consideration the employers priority to get the job done. They have the right to have certain clear expectations and put down deadlines and targets in the interest of managing performance. Equally employees with mental health difficulties can do their job, some may need some support and some may not and some may just need to be honest of where they are at and be able to say I am having trouble at home – I am upset, I got some bad news about a loved one’s health, I feel sad – I am struggling with all my commitments, I feel stressed. For some just being able to open up over a cuppa can be enough to feel better as they don’t feel the added pressure of wearing the mask 365 days of the year.

No man is an island

As it happened one of the workshops I delivered was in Tuam and as I normally like to do I usually drive up on the day. Its only during the workshop whilst talking I referred to how our mental health can be affected by external events such a news story like the Tuam babies and its only when I said it I realised that I was actually standing in the place that was at the centre of this tragic story for weeks! A number of people in the group said that the story had deeply impacted on their mental health. As John Donne once said “No man is an island” and like it or not our internal world is affected by the external world so the sooner we accept and accommodate it in all aspects our life including our workplace the sooner we can get on with it!.