Approximately 25% of people will suffer mental illness at some point during their lifetime and, since a large proportion of this time is spent at work, it is likely that this will happen whilst they are part of the workforce. The workplace may not be the cause of someone’s mental health issues, and a firm’s leadership cannot take responsibility for treatment, it can provide the tools to ensure employees are supported.
Mental health in everyday settings
Throughout our lives, we move through a multitude of different settings and phases, from childhood to adulthood, school to work, all the while driving our social and personal pursuits; building connections, finding passions, exploring and growing. Within the ecosystem of ourselves, our physical and mental health are the cogs which keep our machines turning.
To promote the health of our mental state, we first need to understand that it is something to be looked after, nurtured and fed. To be able to do this there is a level of education and support that should be present in our everyday lives, helping us to recognise when something isn’t right and to feel we have the knowledge and awareness to know when to seek treatment from a professional.
As a priority, we should shift the conversation to commonplace settings such as work, sports and schools. Rather than trying to assess sickness and wellness, we should focus on awareness, acceptance and proactively accessing preventative care that will support mental health. While diagnostics is an important area it needs to stay within the healthcare system – with improved access to treatment.
Leading by example
Good leaders build long-lasting organisations that look after their workforce but also themselves. It is important to be concrete, specific and to lead by example; you cannot recommend and implement policies on how employees should take care of themselves if your company romanticises working overtime every day. There should be a certain level of education amongst those who help develop these policies because for many in leading positions there is a lack of in-depth knowledge of the brain, mental health and the impact of stress, lack of sleep and alcohol.
In my experience, as both a psychologist and a leader, I find it natural to discuss things that are emotionally tough with the people I work with and most often you’ll find these things are not related to the actual work. However, if you are able to listen to a person’s emotional needs, I have found that mental health becomes easier to support among your team members.
I have had an advantage as a psychologist when it comes to this specific aspect of running a business. I tend to ask more questions that go beyond “how are you doing?”. I have found that the things that come out of these more in-depth conversations are more important for the person that I am talking to than any other work-related discussions we have – both from a mental health perspective and a productivity perspective. Emotions are important, they drive the person.
I recognise that it is not feasible for every leader to devote time to their team to that degree, especially not in larger companies. Therefore, we need to adopt a dual approach – knowledge and empowerment.
Making it work
Once fully developed, mental health disorders can be difficult to treat. That is why we need to look at implementing initiatives in the workplace that can support and encourage employees to recognise and seek professional help at an early stage.
Often, leaders have good intentions to implement change but do not know what initiatives will make a difference. Therefore, collaborating with healthcare professionals to shape your policies will ensure that they are built on a scientific foundation resulting in the best outcome for employees, through education, recognition and support.
Companies need to ensure that managers and HR are trained in mental health protocols to be able to provide support to any employees seeking guidance. Another excellent way to empower employees to take charge of their own mental health is to provide regular workshops on mental health with external professionals to educate employees on the signs and symptoms of a range of disorders. Furthermore, access to counselling with a trained professional should be the new standard.
Mens sana in corpore sano
Mental health is something that affects each and every one of us, that’s why it is so important to get it right. Especially with the recent pandemic and return to the workplace after what has been a challenging period for many, it should be at the forefront for all leaders.
We need to commit to educating ourselves and the people who work for us, starting with free mental health support and education as part of the company package. It is time for a change, and much like companies support physical health with free gym passes, we need to allocate the same importance for mental health.