Mental Health in the Workplace
by See Change Ambassador, Bernadette Crawford
With 3 in 10 of us experiencing mental health issues, today more so than ever before, being able to openly discuss mental health is really essential. Look around your office – 3 in 10, that’s quite a lot of people. In a department of 40 people that’s 12 people. Most of them you will never know about, as many of them will keep it to themselves for fear of what people will think of them, if they will get that promotion or worse again lose their job.
In Ireland, we are beginning to talk more about and acknowledge mental health issues, helped by celebrities who have gone public like Bressie, Brent Pope and Marianne Keys. Festivals such as the First Fortnight held every January focuses on raising awareness of mental health issues through the arts (www.firstfortnight.ie ) along with ‘See Change’ and their ‘Green Ribbon’ campaign. All of these have helped give visibility and in some ways begin to normalise it or at least start the conversations.
The term often used ‘it’s ok not to be ok’…but in reality is it? Have we really come that far?
I struggled with mental health issues for years not knowing what was wrong with me. My GP issued the usual anti-depressants given the loss of my mum and dad and a few other traumatic incidents. But in hindsight I wasn’t depressed. And this is often the challenging thing with mental health illnesses, is getting a diagnosis. Once you have a diagnosis at least then you can start to understand it and to start doing things to address it. That is one of the big challenges, what can you do about it if you don’t know what you are living with?
For me things came to a head, I hit the wall and had to go on sick leave, which took me out of work for a year. Thankfully, during that year I did receive a diagnosis and that has helped hugely in terms of managing my mental health illness. Once you know what you are living with, you are empowered to do something about it, and to live your life to the best you can.
One piece of advice I would really like to impart is that when such things happen to colleagues, friends or family, don’t ignore it. I know with all the best intentions you may want to give the person space and privacy, but instead let them know you are thinking of them. It’s as simple as that. Send a text, maybe not reams of them, or even better a card just to say, ‘thinking of you’. You have no idea how powerful and supportive that gesture will be. Silence increases the isolation and the stigma deepens. There is a sense that you have been forgotten, overnight. Then, when your colleague comes back to work, acknowledge that they are back. Maybe put a card on their desk welcoming them back. This will help to break down the self-stigma that your colleague is likely loading on themselves, and the fear and the worry over returning to work.
I know it’s not always possible to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, especially if you have not experienced mental-health issues. For us living with mental health issues, it’s important that we feel accepted, respected and understood. Fostering a culture of trust and support in the workplace will go a long way to breaking the silence.
It’s important that organisations think about promoting positive self-care among its employees! Where feasible offer activities like mindfulness, massage, yoga etc. on site or even on line during the working day. These are not luxuries; these are interventions that will assist in maintaining people’s mental health and likely result in happier and healthier staff, which leads to greater productivity. It is a total win win.
It is great that efforts to foster supportive workplaces is happening in a number of organisations in Ireland. ‘See Change’ alone, through its workplace programme, has engaged with a number of companies who now have policies and support structures in place to continue the conversation and bring in support initiatives and self-care practices for the staff.
There is still a long way to go to break the silence, the stigma, and discrimination, but a start is being made.
If you or someone you know needs support reach out to the many organisations that exist such as AWARE, Pieta house, Samaritans, Shine, Jigsaw, just to name a few.
If you are having a tough time at the moment and need to reach out for support, please contact any of the following