What do we mean when we talk about “mental health”?

The World Health Organisation defines mental health as:

a state of well-being in which every individual realises his/her 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.

The key is the reference to “every individual“. Everyone has mental health – it just fluctuates from positive mental health through to mental illness.  We can all agree that promoting good mental health and better understanding of mental illness to help people with mental illnesses in the workplace is an important aim.  Indeed it is something with which most employers have engaged positively over the last few years.  However, there are a number of further barriers to be overcome.

One of these barriers is that when an employee is suffering from poor mental health, it is often a “hidden” illness. For example, if someone breaks a leg, their colleagues and line managers can: a) see it has happened; b) quickly and easily assess his mobility and effect on their work/day to day life; and c) talk to the employee about the issue – whether this is by making jokey comments or signing a cast, or offering him more tangible help, such as lifts to work.  By contrast, there are often few outward signs that an employee is struggling with poor mental health – there is no metaphorical ‘plaster cast’ to sign.  Further, recovery is hard to gauge and will depend on an individual’s circumstances – there is no set equivalent, for example to the complicated physiotherapy plan that my mother has to follow having just fallen down a flight of stairs (get better soon, Mum).  Finally, what outward signs there are of poor mental health often involve an individual withdrawing from their peers, rather than actively seeking them out, occasionally also becoming irritable and/or morose or over-friendly.  All of this means that it can hard for colleagues to interact effectively with someone if they know, or suspect that he has a mental health issue.

Secondly, employees are often afraid to disclose their mental health issues for fear of the stigma which can be associated with them. This can be particularly so in an environment like the City, which (outwardly at least) frequently places a premium on hard work, a ‘can do’ attitude and (in some cases) an all-consuming devotion to your job.  Certain professions within the City have historically been known for having a ‘macho’ ethos in which signs of alleged weakness are viewed as fair game for office jokes and teasing, or as evidence that someone ‘can’t cut it’.

Finally, regardless of how supportive the employer/colleagues would be in reality, the unfortunate fact is that a large number of employees are scared that owning up to a mental health issue may adversely impact their career, promotion or salary prospects, bonus or the like. Often the biggest battle for an employee is not against external stigma, i.e. what his colleagues may think if they find out that he has a mental health issue, but internal stigma, when an individual is so concerned that his disclosure of a mental health issue will adversely impact him (regardless of whether it is objectively likely to do so or not) that they refuse to disclose their issue, almost always just worsening the situation.

So what can businesses do to help? The key feature of the majority of campaigns on this issue is communication – whether it’s Heads Together (backed by the Royal Family), This is Me in the City (the Lord Mayor’s Appeal), Time to Change (backed by Ruby Wax and others), they all urge employers, colleagues and friends to ask just one simple question: “How are you?

This does not mean that line managers and colleagues need to become experts in mental health issues, but it does mean helping them understand the signs of potential mental health issues, knowing when and how to involve HR, and, ideally, the support networks offered by the employer – employee assistance programmes, medical insurance, occupational health, wellbeing and mindfulness training, etc. It is also important that employees know that any disclosures they make will be treated appropriately and that, within reason, their employer will look to help to assist them as this will hopefully help employees overcome their fear of stigma.