Small steps to improve mental health at work
Posted Tuesday 17 May 2011
Teresa*, a communications specialist for a large retail organisation returned to work in February after a brief stay in hospital. Two days later, a colleague asked how she was feeling.
‘He put his arm around me and told me how sorry he was that I’d been to the hospital for my depression’, she smiles. ‘He was being really kind and it was appreciated, but the really funny thing was that I had actually just had minor surgery, which as far as I’m aware, was unrelated to my mental health problems’.
It’s true that Teresa has lived with depression since she was a 17; it’s also fair to say that her condition is well managed with weekly counselling sessions, medication, and exercise. Subsequently, Teresa rarely needs to take time off work as a result of her diagnosis. ‘I don’t hide the fact that I have experience of depression – a number of colleagues to whom I’m close know about it. And my manager is also really supportive of me. He knew why I was going into hospital, but my colleagues didn’t. It’s just really interesting to me that some of them jumped to the conclusion that any absence must related to my depression’.
We all, employers and employees alike, have a responsibility to support people in the workplace during both good times and bad. With 1 in 6 workers experiencing depression, anxiety or stress as you read this, never has there been a better time to start thinking about what you can do to help create an open and supportive workplace. Whether you’re an employer or an employee, you might find some of the following suggestions useful.
- Reduce stigma in your organisation: challenge any assumptions that your colleagues hold about mental distress (i.e. people with mental health issues take too much time off work; people with depression aren’t as capable as others)
- Don’t ignore the elephant in the room. While Teresa’s colleague didn’t understand why she had been off work, he at least acknowledged it in a supportive and mindful way. As she said, ‘I was touched and know that if ever I am in a bad place, he’ll be a real ally'
- Resist the urge to pathologise the person and their disorder. People with mental health problems are often seen as "problematic" or otherwise abnormal when experiencing the very same emotions and reactions as their “normal” colleagues. Having a bad day, being stressed out, tired or just plain fed up can be seen by some people as "acting out". But people with mental health issues do have bad days, just as everyone else does!
- Don’t assume that a colleague with a mental health problem is absent because of their diagnosis. Teresa’s story highlights how easy it is for us to make assumptions about other people’s situations.
Andrea is a Mind Trustee and Wellbeing Consultant
*Not her real name.
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