Our nurses speak to people from all walks of life and from all backgrounds, and over the years we’ve noticed that many employees think that their employers could do better in supporting those with mental health issues.
Despite many organisations now offering mental health support and improving their communications on the subject, we hear that there are still many barriers in place that cause employees to delay seeking help until crisis point is reached.
Clearly, all employers will want to avoid this situation, both for the wellbeing of their employees as well as to mitigate the impact on their business, but how can employers overcome the many barriers that seem to exist?
Mental ill health covers a very diverse range of conditions with symptoms which fluctuate in frequency, severity and can easily reoccur. It is also often hidden and can affect the ability of the individual to make rational choices .Treatment pathways and patient responses to treatment are often not as predictable as they are for physical conditions. These factors make it very difficult for employers to deal with.
The barriers we regularly hear about:
Confidentiality: employees are usually very worried about disclosing a mental health concern to their employer, they fear how they will be viewed and often feel ashamed of having such a condition. Recent research from Heads Together found that only 2% of employees would feel comfortable a speaking to their employer about their mental health. This worry also extends to third-party services available through the employer such as an insurer or EAP (Employee Assistance Programme), so significant reassurance of confidentiality is needed to ensure valuable services are used.
Privacy: even when help is sought, the employee can still have uneasy feelings, they may be concerned about where they can hold private phone calls, or needing to take time away from work to attend appointments within office hours. These issues can bring additional anxiety or distress to the individual and exacerbate their mental ill health. It is not surprising that many people choose to stay away from work during a period of therapy.
Promotions: despite all the publicity, many employees still perceive that mental health is stigmatised in the workplace. They suspect that if they admit to having a mental illness then the employer may feel that they won’t be able to cope with a more responsible role or management position.
Perception of colleagues: As well a fear of the perception of employers, employees also fear the perception of their colleagues. Most people want to do a good job and be a valued member of the team. Admission of a mental health condition to workmates may feel like a sign of weakness that many won’t wish to give.
Remuneration: A natural consequence of worries about employment and progression is a worry about finances. An undisclosed mental health condition could easily lead to a poor performance rating which can invalidate any pay rises or bonuses that would otherwise be due. Financial worries can also add to the potentially many stressors that are causing the mental ill health in the first place.
Suitability for their role: many employees believe their employer thinks that they are unsuitable to continue in their current role – especially if they are in a high stress environment, a position of authority, required to drive, carry firearms, use heavy machinery, or deal regularly with people in vulnerable situations.
Split persona: many roles require the employee to be in a position of authority e.g the moment a police officer puts on a uniform; they take on a highly respected role and are expected to be strong. Employees in stressful roles need to be well supported in the workplace to ensure they are able to “offload” issues in a safe environment, otherwise experiences can build up and take their toll on the employee’s mental wellbeing over time. Coupled with the pressure of needing to be strong in the workplace, many people we speak to find it hard that they also feel a need to be strong at home as a parent and spouse.
Letting down family: many people feel that by admitting to the family that they are struggling to cope or have a mental health issue, they are letting them down and are in some way weak. The responsibilities of parenthood weigh heavily on many people who want to stay strong for their children.
Cost: employees are often suspicious that mental health support made available by their employer may be inadequate, meaning that they will need to self-fund additional sessions, particularly with the current long NHS waiting lists for mental health services.
Seriousness of condition: the term mental health covers a wide range and severity of conditions ranging from mild anxiety or depression through to disorders such as bi-polar or schizophrenia. Many people with mild or early stage symptoms don’t concur with the label mental health and hold back from seeking out support, suspecting it’s only for those who have more extreme symptoms. Some also have concerns that seeking help may open a can of worms and lead to more problems for them in many of the ways discussed in this blog.
In my view, it’s really important to remember that just because we as an industry are making lots of noise about breaking down the taboos of mental health, there is a lot more at stake in the eyes of employees.
So often, in our work with employees, we find that people often try to hide their condition; this can lead to a wide range of other problems arising as a result, All of which often leads to a downward spiral for the individual which could have been avoided.
Fortunately, millennials may have grown up in a world where they often feel happier to talk about their feelings but the same doesn’t necessarily apply to other generations, different personalities or different industry sectors.
We believe that the communication of mental health support needs to not only say ‘we offer it and here’s how to access it’ but it also needs to address these very genuine concerns of real employees. Any mental health condition that is left to fester will ultimately take longer to heal which is then more challenging for both the employee and employer.
Employers need to take a pro-active stance and reassure their employees that there should not be any fear around talking or acting upon mental health issues, and debunk some of these concerns and myths. If high-profile members of staff are open about their mental illness, this can make a big difference in encouraging employees to speak out without fear.
Christine Husbands, Managing Director, RedArc Nurses