The HR Juggler

Mental Health at Work: What’s in Your Head?

Posted on: January 23, 2011

Mental health worries me. It is estimated by MIND that 1 in 4 people suffer a mental health problem over any 5 year period and every year UK businesses lose £26 billion and 70 million working days because of conditions like workplace stress (  

What worries me most is not these statistics per se, although HR professionals should take them seriously as they have potentially far-reaching implications for the workforce of the businesses we operate in. What is of real concern to me is that these mental health conditions are ‘lurkers’; hiding beneath the surface of acceptable normality, still treated as taboos and often not talked about or discussed before it is too late.

This week marks the ninth anniversary of my brother-in-law’s death from suicide. He was 30 years old, owned his own house and worked in a good job. And whilst it is not my intention to write this post wholly about him, he does underpin all of my thinking on this issue. Because until that day nine years ago, even many of those closest to him had no idea what was in his head. He had depression and hid it well, as many do.

Which brings me on to my point and the key question I pose to myself and to all of you: do we do enough to support mental health issues in the workplace? Sure, we have an Employee Assistance Programme and we run workshops to generate awareness of stress and how to manage it both in one’s self and in one’s direct reports. We take our responsibilities seriously and look at stress in the context of health and safety and are a responsible employer. We fund employees’ private medical insurance and refer individuals to an outsourced occupational health service if they are unwell for any reason and work with them to effect a graduated return to work, if required.

Is this enough?

It ticks a lot of boxes, but I have a nagging suspicion that dealing with this issue effectively will take more effort than that, more engagement with experts to fully understand the scale of the problem and how we as HR professionals and responsible businesses can make a difference to ending the taboo which exists around mental health in the workplace.

I don’t know the answer, but I would love to know what you think.

11 Responses to "Mental Health at Work: What’s in Your Head?"

Very interesting blog post Alison. For me, I would say that workplace treatment of ‘stress’ and mental health issues stems from a wider societal perspective of the subject. Despite the, quite frankly, shocking statistics concerning mental health, it does indeed remain a ‘taboo’ subject. I’ve been in workplaces (NOT my current one!!) where people have quite clearly been suffering mentally due to the job they are doing and seen management pass this off as ‘inconvenient’, ‘dramatic’ and ‘fake’.

I think that many people fail to attach credibility to mental illness because it’s not something that they can tangibly measure / see. If someone has time off work because they’ve taken their foot off under a lawnmower, this is visibly authentic. However, the issue with mental illness, is that many people don’t understand it – and they can’t see it – which leads in turn to many people doubting how ‘accurate’ it is.

I do think that so much more needs to be done to address this increasing number of mental health issues in the workplace – the figures truly are worrying. But until wider society addresses these too, I feel that many workplaces will continue to play the ‘he / she is exaggerating’ card. Which is clearly very wrong and a concern for HR.

All of the things you mention are indeed worthy, but i find that often by they time people are plugged into these support mechanisms its way too late. Many people suffer in silence, inside a world very few can penetrate, sharing it with no one and its during those times that the damage is done, the scars are being formed. Just like i imagine in your brother in laws case.

Despite organisations offering these support mechanisms, there is still a huge trust issue and a reluctance by individuals to ‘put their hand up’ and ask for help. Why would you? The quickest way to career suicide is to flag a mental issue. It is unfortunately grossly misunderstood and a label that never ever goes away.

Raising awareness is the key, and conversations such as this are certainly a start, and a move in the right direction.

As a mental health practitioner in private practice I see many clients suffer more through the need to keep their difficulties “secret” from their employers and colleagues than “over play” to take time off work.

My belief is that to make real progress, a fully joined up approach is required. EAP’s are great, but unless people feel comfortable accessing them, they will not be as affective as they could be.

Likewise, in my experience, too many Stress Management training days focus on training the managers to identify and manage work related stress in their staff, these being run by HR professionals. Using a mental health practitioner who specialises in stress can offer a much deeper and wider training experience, offering managers a real insight into the issues, challenging their prejudices, blind spots and assumptions in a safe way. They can really understand how “there but for the grace of God”..

In the words of one of my clients “We, (the mentally ill) will only find the voice to speak, when you find the ears to hear”. Finding those ears takes real effort. Education yes, but more importantly real understanding happens experientially IMO.

Great thought provoking blog. Thanks.

Brilliant post, Alison, and so sad to hear about your brother in law.

I don’t know the answer, but I do think that Gareth is right.

But even before the trust issue, do people even know when they need help? At what point does a person say, that this particular issue is trickier to deal with than a previous issue, so they’d better get help for it. And surely it all-too-soon becomes a slippery slope.

I think it is hard for some people to understand themselves, let alone understand the help they might be able to get – even if trust is part of the equation.

I’d love to know how you get on with this.

Thanks for highlighting this hugely important subject Alison, and for sharing your own poignant perspective. In my time in HR I saw an incredibly high incidence of mental health concerns, including from within HR. And despite seemingly enlightened leaders appearing sympathetic, behind closed doors there was often talk of so-and-so being ‘broken’ or ‘damaged’. I feel these comments spring from fear or ignorance and perhaps both. I left HR to work mainly in stress reduction, and in my view we need to offer genuine acceptance and compassion first and foremost – we are all human and have much humanity to offer if we allow ourselves to reveal it. But for this to be commonplace, I think we need greater awareness and acceptance of mental health issues in society as a whole, not just the workplace. We need to turn towards mental health issues and address our collective fear of them. I have found that when someone is allowed the space to ‘be with’ their feelings of anxiety or depression, rather than blocking them out for fear of what others will think, then they can begin to understand themselves better, develop self-compassion and rediscover their balance, often very naturally. With new research on the more ‘compassionate’ approaches to mental health, such as mindfulness (mindfulness-based stress reduction and cognitive therapy), we’re slowly learning that accepting rather than rejecting mental health issues is the key. Forgive my long comment, I’m rather passionate about this 🙂 Alison

Great post Alison, really touching.
I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on the subject, but I do feel very strongly about stress in the workplace, and about the impact that work has on us as individuals, as well as our own personal situations and circumstances that we bring to work in turn.
Work should be a ‘safe’ environment for people, and with that should come the ability to voice concerns about stress levels without being perceived as weak. I think that people are only too worried about highlighting issues and concerns because they feel that it is indicative of incompetence – when it can actually be the opposite. I recently encountered a girl at work in tears because she’d made a mistake due to being busy and someone was rude and shouted at her as a result. Actually, her only mistake had been not letting her line manager know that she was unsure how to prioritise her work (resulting in getting it wrong).
I don’t know how we can change a prevailing culture now whereby hard work is seen as everything, and stress a sign of weakness. I think that we can set examples as individuals and educate through our actions, as well as EAPs and stress awareness courses. I’ve never shouted at a team member, however grave their error, and I am always, always contactable for my team. I encourage them to talk through their work stress and to suggest solutions to me, reinforcing that they are fully capable of managing it.
Above all, we must never judge or ignore if someone comes to us and says that they can’t cope, or that they’re stress; or even if they’re quiet and ‘just not themselves’ if we know them well enough to judge.
We’re never going to get it right all the time, but we should at least treat people the way we would hope to be treated; in a supportive way, without judgement.

This is an excellent post Alison. Having suffered from severe post natal depression on two separate occasions, I know just how it feels to be employed whilst at the same time trying to deal with a horrible illness.

In my experience, mental health issues are usually treated in such a way that makes you feel that you are not believed at all. At least with a broken leg you can see the crutches and the plaster but with stress and depression it’s invisible.

My first time was awful, my employer couldn’t deal with it and they paid me off to leave the organisation. The second time was fortunately better and I had a lot of support which meant that I had no time off work at all. My line manager allowed me to work as much or as little as I had the effort for and was more than supportive.

EAPs and the like are useful but what we need is a wider social acceptance of individuals who experience these problems and an appreciation of what they bring to the table.

I do believe that my own personal experiences have made a huge impact on my HR career and although I don’t widely publicise my past, I can have an empathy that not many employers appear to give.

I’m so grateful and hugely humbled by all of you who have taken the time to read this post and even more so for those of you who have commented. This is one of those times where the quality and depth of comments far surpass the original blog post and for that I thank you.

So much food for thought here and individual experiences to consider. I think most of all the comment from Liz’s clients resonates with me: “we will only find the voice to speak when you find the ears to listen.” Wow – that’s powerful stuff.

I am truly blown away by the suport and sharing from this post – thank you so much.

4504 hits on personnel today website when you search for “stress” related articles. Plus latest study showing that 52% of employers don’t see depression as a reason for calling sick. It was one of the most disturbing news I have read lately being seriously concerned about where are we heading with this sort of attitude. Performance management practices + “Longest hours” culture in EU will bring UK nation to its knees. More needs to be done, more of a walk rather than talk from the government making impressions but letting “business as usual” destroying more families around the country.
Thank you for spreading word Alison.

[…] then to fail to take action. If you need any further proof, look here to a post that I wrote about mental health two years ago and have done very little about since. I have spoken at length with the author of the […]

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