John Saunders recently responded to an article by Terry Prone in the Irish Examiner entitled “Nothing They Can Do For The Co-Worker Who Cuts herself.” The article provides a description of a girl engaging in self-harm in the workplace setting that is both insensitive and stigmatising.
Terry Prone’s “nothing they could do” attitude and depiction of co-workers passively witnessing a colleague’s self-harming behaviour at work only propagates the culture of secrecy around mental health problems in the workplace that needs to be urgently challenged.
The reality is that every one of us, whether personally effected by mental health problems or not, can play a role an active role in dispelling the stigma and myths that keep the perspective of 1 in 4 of the population hidden.
Research conducted by See Change in 2013 found that attitudes to mental health are changing and 3 in 4 Irish people would now be comfortable working with someone with experience of a mental health problem. However, 57% believe that being open about a mental health problem at work would have a negative impact on job and career prospects and 47% believe that this would have a negative effect on a person’s relationship with colleagues.
Without open discussion of mental health problems, valuable time is wasted hiding something that can often be easily supported within an organisation. In 2008 the Mental Health Commission report The Economics of Mental Health Care in Ireland estimated the direct annual cost of poor mental health in Ireland at €3 billion or 2% of GNP. These costs include loss of potential labour supply, unemployment, absenteeism and reduced productivity in the workplace.
The first step in instituting this cultural change in Irish workplaces could be as simple as asking a colleague how they are, with judgement or insinuation and suggesting that if they ever want to talk that you’ll be there. They might want to talk about it, they might not. But just letting them know they don’t have to avoid the issue with you is important.
Employees and colleagues cannot be expected to solve someone else’s problems, but taking the fear out of discussion and working in a supportive team that cares about the wellbeing of its members can make a huge difference to any team member’s ability to cope.
A good employer should be mindful of the levels of stress that all employees experience at work. Promoting and protecting the mental wellbeing of the workforce is important for individuals physical health, social wellbeing and productivity. It can impact retention, productivity and performance while also assisting and supporting employees experiencing distress. Having clear steps and guidelines on how to engage with employees on wellbeing and mental health makes it easier to form an appropriate proactive strategy to address a situation.
For better or for worse, we all bring our mental health to work so this open conversation needs to happen from the boardroom to the breakroom.