A new resource designed to promote workplace wellbeing emerged on 11 September, with the launch of Mental Health at Work  – the new advice portal from the Royal Foundation’s Heads Together campaign.
As the site went live, Metro ran a tie-in piece outlining people’s experiences of mental-health difficulties at work,  with worker ‘Kate’ telling the publication: “I admit that my sickness levels are higher than the average employee … I dread ringing work to tell them I am not fit enough to work due to mental health. I struggle to make telephone calls anyway but to tell somebody that I’m taking time off because of something that isn’t physical makes it 100 times harder.
‘Kate’ adds: “The return-to-work meetings also terrify me. Having to justify myself to a manager that knows next to nothing about my illness or me as a person is humiliating and difficult to explain to a non-mental health sufferer.”
The picture her testimony paints is one of an indifferent and poorly infrmed workplace that has left her feeling isolated.
By contrast, a recent Forbes interview with US astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson  reveals that NASA staff are obliged to look out for each other as they endure the stresses of their intense training programmes – in which, she explains, “you are practicing simulations, being evaluated constantly and getting a lot of information fast”.
She points out: “Self-care within the group is a big deal. It’s not only something we emphasise but is something we get evaluated on. We actually do analogue training events on earth where we go out into the wilderness as a team to be able to get to know ourselves and to get to know the other members of our crew. Your self-care is something that your peers actually grade, making note of whether or not your self-care was where it needed to be to function within the group.”
In which ways does this hint at arrangements that other organisations could implement, to encourage and promote a greater awareness of the mental-health challenges that their workers may be facing?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “We at the Institute – plus Business in the Community and many other organisations – have campaigned for so long about the importance of mental health in the workplace. In addition to boosting a basic awareness of mental-health issues – so that people do look out for each other and feel comfortable with discussing their difficulties – it is vital to reduce the stigma, so that people consider mental-health issues to be on a par with physical ailments.
“If that were so, then ‘Kate’ in the Metro piece wouldn’t be so worried about phoning in with her problems – or, indeed, attach so much dread to those return-to-work interviews, around which she perceives such a huge lack of sensitivity.”
Cooper notes: “I’ve always found it interesting that people tend to think you somehow have to be an ‘expert’ to venture into this territory. Typically, if someone comes into work with, say, a bad knee that they’ve injured in a skiing trip, nobody would mind giving them some advice about how to care for that injury. So it’s very curious that we’re somewhat reticent when it comes to engaging with colleagues about mental-health problems.
“What I really like about this NASA approach is that making your mental health not only your problem, but your colleagues’ problem, too, appeals to fundamental tenets of common sense. If you see one of your colleagues carrying heavy boxes of printer paper up some stairs, for example, it’s likely that you will point out the potential pitfalls of what they’re up to. Similarly, if you see someone struggling with stress or depression, or worrying about things they haven’t worried about before, it should be just as natural to intervene. Some people may operate on a high level of anxiety anyway, while others may be more lugubrious – but it’s the changes in their behaviour that really warrant attention and concern.”
Cooper adds: “as observers, we will be more likely to notice those changes than the people who are suffering their effects. When you are depressed, you are unlikely to remember what it was like to be more cheerful. So it’s about i) sharing that responsibility for your mental wellbeing with colleagues, recognising that it impacts upon everyone around you – and ii) maintaining a caring and considerate observation of others, whereby you look out for unusual behaviours.
“Meanwhile, as organisations, keep campaigning for a parity between how physical and mental health issues are acknowledged – and for the removal of the destructive stigma that clouds so many of our attitudes and approaches towards mental health.”
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- 17 October 2018