With the recent publication of the « Thriving at work » study, it felt like an appropriate time to write the sequel to my first post, which I’d been planning for a while.
In case you’ve not heard of the report, it was commissioned by Theresa May and highlighted the fact that around 300’000 people with a long term mental health problem lose their jobs each year. Not only that, but apparently the number of people forced to stop work as a result of mental health problems was 50% higher than those with physical health conditions.
You can read more about it in an article by the Guardian here, or the full report here.
One of the key issues is that while mental health in the workplace seems to be a “trending” topic (many articles talk about burn out and the increasing amount of pressure on the contemporary worker), it still remains taboo for people to discuss in the workplace.
It seems natural that you wouldn’t want to be shouting from the rooftops that you’re close to burnout, or suffering from anxiety or depression. The concern is that you will be perceived as weak, unreliable… that you may not be trusted with other projects or perhaps you might even be passed over for a promotion if people think you can’t take the pressure.
None of this is right but this is how the taboo persists. It’s one of the reasons I wrote my first post and try to talk openly about my experiences now I’m able to. I want to raise more awareness and help make it ok for people to talk about what they’re going through, to foster an environment in which people feel comfortable to do so. After all we’re only human.
But the real question I pose is, whose responsibility is it to ensure good mental health in the workplace? The employers or the employee’s? Despite my experience I don’t believe that the onus should be 100% on the employer, I actually believe it’s up to each and every one of us to look after ourselves.
The employee’s responsibility
I’m not denying the employer has a role to play, however I think ours is more important. We are different individuals meaning that we all have varying degrees of resilience, different triggers, weaknesses and strengths. So it would be near impossible to have a one size fits all policy, protecting both the weakest and the strongest.
How can we take responsibility for our own wellbeing in the workplace? First of all, it’s important to know yourself. Know what your weaknesses are, what is likely to push you over the edge? Know your personality, are you more quiet or outspoken? How will this affect your experience in the workplace? And know your boundaries. What are you willing to tolerate? It is it working late one night a week, or two? Or never?
All of these are important questions that we each need to be able to answer for ourselves. You don’t have to know the answer immediately. It may come with time, or it may come with help by working with someone such as a mentor, a coach or a psychiatrist… But once you know the answers, you’ll be better equipped to take care of your mental health by being better at identifying when you’re reaching your limits.
The second part – as I touched upon in my previous article – is finding your coping mechanisms. Identifying when you’re reaching your limits is good, only if you’re able to then address the issue.
The employer’s responsibility
I do believe the employer also has a role to play, though like I said it’s probably not by creating a one size fits all policy. In my opinion, one of the most important things employers can do is help break the taboo. It needs to be ok for people to share their experiences in the workplace without fear of being set back.
I’m not talking about sudden outbursts of emotion like crying or shouting fits, but for people to feel comfortable to say to a colleague “Hey – I’m really struggling. This is too much, I don’t know how long I can carry on”. Or even for someone to say “I burnt out once, I was very overworked this is what happened and this is how I dealt with”. Because only by sharing experiences will people feel more comfortable to speak up and ultimately be able to get help from their peers.
Of course it is also the employer’s responsibility to foster a healthy working environment. By that I mean an environment in which it’s not normal to be working crazy hours all year round or being a slave to your phone. And I don’t just mean adding in fun benefits like a gym or a ping pong table, I mean encouraging people to find the work life balance that’s right for them, and helping them stick to it.
Finally, if companies really wanted to take things to the next level, they could encourage (as some do) employees to take courses to help heighten people’s emotional intelligence, or self-awareness so as to be able to detect issues. Or even to encourage courses on the most common types of mental health issues in the workplace with common practical solutions.
Taking the first step
Ultimately the ideal scenario and the one in which we would be best off is where both employees and employers take equal responsibility, and work hand in hand to ensure mental health issues in the workplace gradually diminish. Helping people get proper care and are better enabled to return to work.
But before we get there, let’s start by taking our own baby step in the right direction. As they say in French “each person brings their stone to the building”. What will yours be?