In 2020, the world has never been a better or a worse place to be a mental health sufferer. Whilst we have more access to help and support than ever before, the realities of society, politics and the media can all have a hugely negative impact on our mental wellbeing and health.
There are so many articles, blog posts and longform LinkedIn guides to creating a mentally healthy workplace, filled with tips on creating ‘safe spaces’, using suggestion boxes and anonymous feedback forms to help build a calm, supportive workspace. But as someone who has worked in a number of offices and workplaces over the years, it’s often the case that these tips don’t always have the desired impact. With such a huge range of mental illness and symptoms to comprehend, what might work for one employee could be considered damaging to the next. It can feel impossible to please everyone, and unfortuntely there’s no right answer or quick solution here.
But I wanted to give it a try. I wanted to reach out to those managers, HR reps, Office Coordinators and bosses who are still trying to understand just what a ‘mentally healthy workplace’ looks like, and share just a few pointers in a more positive direction.
You Aren’t Here To Cure Them, But To Accommodate Them
Something that many managers I’ve encountered struggle to understand is that when a worker with a mental health issue comes to them to talk, they’re not looking for a cure. They don’t need a sit down session talking about where they’ve been going wrong with their mental health problem so far, what other people might think of them or recommendations of meditation during their lunch break. Trust me, they know all of this. Doctors, therapists, psychologists and GPs are there for treatment. You are there to accommodate this treatment.
One of the most comforting things a worker with mental health problems can hear is ‘you’re not a burden and we want to help you feel as confident as possible working here.’ They need to know that the workspace is equipped properly for their needs i.e. easy access to water to take any medication, private meeting spaces to discuss confidental subjects, flexible working hours and trustworthy managers. This will matter so much more to them than Friday beers, games consoles and ping pong tables in the office.
Treat Mental Health and Physical Health Equally
An issue that many people with mental health issues face is the inequality of their symptoms vs those with physical health problems. An employee who breaks their leg will often find that they are given sympathy, sick pay, time off for doctor’s appointments, assistance in their daily tasks and sweet ‘get well soon’ cards from their teammates. An employee who goes through a period of depression will get nothing but a few odd looks in the office and the persistent feeling of guilt for taking any time off at all. A sporty worker can freely discuss their new workout regime, which protein powder they prefer and how much weight they lift now. A mentally ill worker will rarely discuss their new CBT schedule, chat about last night’s panic attack or talk about how great their latest dose of medication makes them feel.
By redefining what it means to have a ‘health-related issue’, you are contractually dismissing the stigma of mental health in your workplace. Allow your employees to take sick days for bad mental health. Allow them to take time off for therapy appointments or medication reviews. Give them a hand if you can see they are struggling and show the same sympathy and empathy as you would if they physically wounded. By encouraging this behaviour from the top, you are creating an environment of equality, support and open conversation around mental health and mental illness.
Make A Policy of Confidentiality and Stick To It
One of the biggest issues I faced in a previous workplace was the discussion of mental health between managers and employees. When I confided in a manager that I was struggling with anxiety, almost every instance of stress or even a slightly lower mood would be put down to my anxiety from then on. This confidental information was brought up in meetings with other managers, and I was given an endless list of ‘tips’ to help me manage it, even though I was already seeking personal help in my own time. It was embarassing and often used against me for their own benefit. But it wasn’t just me that this happened to. My boss was rumoured to have had a mental breakdown and took some time off, the news of which was delivered to us in a whole office ‘catch up’. An intern struggled with panic attacks, and we were very quickly informed of this when reviewing her first week in the office. Not only are these examples of a very bad workplace environment, they are also reinforcing the stigma of mental health as something to be ashamed of, to hide from people and to be used in a negative way.
Add a section of confidentiality into your company policy. Inform all of your employees that if they share a personal issue with you or any other manager, you can guarantee confidentiality and equal treatment from that moment onwards. Small changes such as this one can make a big difference to how welcome and supported an employee can feel in a workplace, allowing them to decide just how open they want to be about their mental health.
Don’t Wait For Patient Zero
In every office and every workplace around the world, there will be employees struggling with their mental health. It doesn’t matter which industry you work in, which hours you work, what your job title is or how much money you make. 1 in 4 people suffer from some form of mental illness, meaning that any number of your employees could be suffering from conditions such as anxiety, depression, OCD, bipolar disorder and many many others. But you shouldn’t be waiting for one of them to come and tell you their diagnosis before implementing positive mental health changes in your workplace.
Start creating a calm, supportive and accommodating workspace right from day one, rather than forcing change after you hire your first ‘mentally ill’ employee. Many workers won’t want to come and talk to their managers about their personal wellbeing, or share their stories of mental health with any of their colleagues at all. Some will want to use work as an escape from their illness, as a welcome distraction and so might withhold information about it from anyone connected to their workplace. By already having systems in place to support employees with mental health in the first place, workers who feel like this can benefit from the support without needing to share their pain beforehand.
Never Tell Them To ‘Leave Their Shit At The Door’
Any workplace who enforces this rule is one I would never want to work for. When you hire someone to work in your company, you hire a person. You don’t hire a machine, an android with no personality, no history, no pain or no emotion. You hire a human, who will go through many different things whilst in your employment and you cannot expect them to simply shut down for the sake of the working day. Whilst of course there are limits to how much a personal issue can affect work, it can make a situation even worse for an employee when they are told to leave it behind when they step into the office.
I’ve been told this before. It hurt and it made me feel embarassed and frustrated because I simply couldn’t do that. My mental health is not some kind of pet I can just leave at home for the day. It is my head and my mind and my brain and where I go, it goes. The best thing you can do for any of your employees is to tell them that work is a safe and productive space. It’s a space where they can come in and do their jobs, whilst in the knowledge that they will be supported by their team when things get tough.
Building and creating a mentally healthy workplace is not an easy fix. Your employees will have mental health problems regardless of the work they do, but what you can do is help them to feel safe, heard and understood whilst in your employment.
Have a great week.