Mental health tends to be something organisations sweep under the rug. Here are three questions to ask to gauge how mentally healthy your workplace is

By Camille Wilson

Wednesday September 11, 2019

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Camille Wilson runs workshops on mental health and the workplace. She says that with rates of anxiety and depression growing each year, there is going to be a time that leaders and businesses cannot avoid questions of their workplace’s mental health status any longer.

One of the reasons businesses don’t invest into mental health is because we have little to benchmark it against. Mental health has always been something we have tended to sweep under the rug. It wasn’t even until the early 1900’s that we stopped calling those with mental health issues the “insane”. Similarly, it took us to the 1940’s for us to finally bring in the first manual to describe what a mental health condition even was, and, to this day, the indicators of mental health are still blurry and experts around the world are working furiously to truly understand how mental health can sit within the medical world in a more cohesive and understandable way.

For this reason, I don’t necessarily blame businesses in struggling to address it. Mental health is complex. We struggle in answering the questions such as, maybe our employees are doing okay but have just had a bad week? Or have they been hiding something more serious for years? Will reaching out to them help them or draw them further away? Is it my role to help as a leader, and if it is, what can I even do?

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READ MORE: NZ workplace study shows more than quarter of employees feel depressed much of the time

There are so little of employees talking about it that no leaders know or really understand it yet. The problem at hand is invisible, but in doctor and psychology offices, the truth is prevailing, and the problem isn’t going away. With rates of anxiety and depression growing each year, there is going to be a time that leaders and businesses cannot hide behind these questions anymore.

However, to help, I have three simple questions that leaders can ask themselves to better understand where their company might sit on the mental health support scale. Are you ready? Ready.

1. Flip the playing card. Imagine you were the one who became unwell. Would you feel comfortable speaking up about your mental health?

If you think you would, then that is great. It means that you probably have a supportive leader that you have a trusting relationship with and feel safe to open up to.

However, given that 80% of employees don’t feel comfortable in disclosing their state of mental health to their employer, more likely than not, your answer will be no. For some reason, even if we say no to this question, we still manage to make excuses for why everyone else must be able to say yes.

With stigma being one of the biggest barriers to our prevention of mental health, much of the time there is a complete misunderstanding of what we are referring to when we utter the words “mental health”.

Mental health isn’t simply for those who become “unwell” or who need a diagnosis from a GP. It is relevant to every single one of us. We are becoming well versed to say that mental health is as important as our physical health – as some might call it, it is our mental fitness. But, we still so easily talk about the gym, yoga, eating habits, how we sleep, but when it comes to our mental health, we are tight-lipped. Hush, hush now, don’t say those words.

There is opportunity for mental health to be re-imagined into something that employees can relate to. It isn’t doom and gloom. It isn’t all signs and symptoms. There is much more to mental health; a interesting and exciting world of how our brains work and what we can be doing about it to better support it.

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2. Do you (and your team) feel equipped in knowing what you would do if an employee stood up and said, “I need support for my mental health”?

Would you know what to say or do if an employee came to you telling you that they are going through mental health issues? Many leaders feel stumped when this happens, or, even worse, they feel like it is just another thing to add to their already busy plate. Needless to say, there is a high chance that if you don’t know feel equipped, then the employees that report into you, won’t feel equipped either!

Many organisations overlook the power and importance of mental health training. They see the words mental health in front of it and instantly look away. Call it emotional intelligence training, resilience training, human interaction training – label it whatever you like! Either way, by providing leaders with the right skills and understanding, it will not only flip the entire mental health conversation upside down, but also help leaders in other employee matters.

3. Does your culture have a safe and practical way for employees to seek out help?

Ok, let’s say you’ve addressed the first two. You’ve got your employees feeling comfortable to speak up, and you’ve got your leaders feeling comfortable to respond, but what happens next? Your leaders aren’t psychologists and are not expected to be on.

This is where your mental health support system comes into play. Does your company provide mental health support such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), an in-house employee counselor, mental health first aiders, or a peer support network? And, even more importantly, do your employees have any idea that these services exist? Most organisations will say no, and if they do, the uptake is usually small (3-5% if you’re lucky) and companies use this as a positive reaffirmation that “they simply don’t need it”. When, in fact, it is more likely to do with employees not knowing it exists, or they are too afraid to use it, rather than the easily held onto belief that your employees don’t need it.

So, if you’re sitting there, reading through this article, realising that 1) you are not able to speak up yourself, 2) that you don’t know what you’d do if someone else did, and 3) you aren’t even sure if you have an EAP, then mental health cannot afford to be sitting as your fifth agenda item that always conveniently gets missed.

It is time to wake up, change the way we see mental health in the workplace, and start doing something about it.

This piece is part of a series of The Hard Truth articles by Camille Wilson to address the key challenges facing workplaces and mental health today. Follow Camille on LinkedIn to read more articles from the series or sign up to the series by email.

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Chris Johnson
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