Dear friends have suffered. A lot. I have suffered some too. I’m talking about wild fluctuations of the mind and states of mental health in our working lives. At one end of the seesaw there is the dark depressive state and at the other the jumpy anxious mind; often they go together up and down like a rollercoaster as we navigate our working lives.
Somewhere in the middle is the elusive calm state where thoughts are stable, we feel confident, at ease and in flow with life and others.
The official definition of mental health by the World Health Organisation is a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.
At work and in professional services circles, there is still hesitancy to broach the topic of mental health, even though our sharpest work tool is our mind.
We also have to question whether today’s workplaces equate with normal stresses of life. In decades of working in public relations agencies, I learned how common mental health issues actually were and how costly they were to individuals and the organisations they work for. People were often willing to quit their jobs to find a fresh start somewhere less stressful.
According to the Department of Health, about one in five Australians will experience a mental illness, and most of us will experience a mental health problem at some time in our lives.
Despite this, workplaces struggle to know how to take care of the mind and introduce compassionate ways to support people through these challenges. No athlete seeks to be in peak performance without training the body. If people are physically sick we rally to get them back into balance, but when it comes to mental health we are out of our comfort zone.
I often wish there was a mind bandage we could wear to work – “oh don’t mind me and my head bandage, I’m just recovering from a bout of anxiety coupled with depressive tendencies”. It is in no way to trivialise it or to confuse the distinction between mental health and mental illness, but more about bringing the issue into the open to make it more ok. If I split my head open, a bandage and public display would be totally fine, yet people’s heads are often similarly splitting with unwelcome states of mind.
What saddens me is people’s fear of being judged or sidelined forces the issue of mental health further underground. The fear of getting it wrong often paralyses leaders in the workplace from acting properly, too. The end result is workplaces are not well prepared, grasping at legislation and policies whilst being strangely reluctant to act like a human in case the company is blamed for creating the problem.
Whilst the clarity around process detailed in workplace health policies can be helpful, they do not create a compassionate or effective solution. I’ve also noticed how many of our leaders experience mental health challenges, and while they are best placed to drive a change of attitude, they don’t always take up the approach required.
As workplace demands and stress continue, workplace leaders and managers need to step up their efforts on the mental health front. They know people are willing to walk away from workplaces if the health cost is too high and the environment is toxic.
Companies are trying innovative approaches around education, creating relaxing environments, using tech solutions as interventions, offering meditation programs and most importantly some leaders are stepping up to tackle the issue in a personal and caring manner.
At The Possibility Partnership we chose compassion as one of our values and in doing so it means we will take a kind approach and support other workplaces to do likewise. We know people who struggle with mental health issues, they are our dear friends and colleagues – be they self-managed or under medical care for a mental illness.
We know that we too are human and will experience different states of mental health and maybe even illness as our lives roll on. I recall how a senior HR leader once shuffled me from the office to stroll around the block in floods of tears when I was dealing with the death of a loved one. OK, the loved one was a cat and that leader, although somewhat bewildered by my outpouring, never pulled out a bereavement policy and said cats were not covered.
Similarly, I also walked many sad or stressed people around blocks when they needed to get away from their desks and smell the roses again. Admittedly, they were only baby steps in a more human approach and are not said to undermine the seriousness and suffering of some people’s mental health situations.
Commonsense and kindness can go a long way if you’re dealing with mental health in the workplace. Safe Work Australia also explains your duties either as a business owner or colleague.
Watch and act for mental wellbeing at work
Watch for signs of stress and changes to mental health amongst colleagues. You don’t have to be an expert to notice classic changes in behaviour due to stress. Often people under or over react, they stop doing things they love like exercise, social outings, may appear less engaged or show other destructive behaviours. It is appropriate to ask the person if they are ok or maybe it’s more important to nudge their work bestie, line manager or someone with a HR hat. Organisations like Beyond Blue, Black Dog Institute and Headspace have excellent resources and programs.
Clarity and preparedness
What are the steps and processes your business follows? Is there a policy or guideline document that can help you? Does your business have an employee assistance program you can use?
I’m not suggesting you need clunky fear-based policies but guidelines to empower managers and help determine exactly what you’re dealing with.
Support mental health and wellbeing in the workplace
- What support programs does your workplace offer? Are any funded by the business? Businesses vary in their approach and levels of support. As a manager you may consider:
- Changes to a role or duties (temporary or permanent);
- Consider a shift off or time away from a stressful workplace or work relationship;
- Counselling or medical support;
- Training and development.
All of this is done in full consultation with the person so as not to disempower them or create solutions that they aren’t interested in.
Mental health goes up and down which is one of the many reasons it makes sense to do ongoing check-ins. Allow the person to suggest the frequency and format.
Normalise mental wellbeing
Workplace cultures and leaders determine how comfortable people are to talk about mental health. Consider your company values and culture – how do they support and encourage you when it comes to dealing with mental health (both your own and someone else’s)? What examples do leaders set? Are they willing to speak openly on the topic?
We can all be more compassionate and courageous in how we tackle the topic in a workplace context. After all, we are all humans with a mind that to some degree fluctuates. Maybe it’s only the degree of fluctuation that makes it a medical condition or not.