If you want to create a culture where people are themselves at work, you should lead from the top and have examples all the way through the organisation of people who are willing to be open about their mental health.
Mental illness is one of the last taboos in society and the workplace, and people find it very difficult to talk about and deal with.
Mental illness covers a broad spectrum of disorders including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety and personality disorders. It can affect anyone and is surprisingly common, with stress and anxiety particularly evident among young adults.
Many choose to suffer in silence rather than deal with the associated stigma; unsure of the reaction and perceived negative treatment they will receive from their employer.
This may well create a downward spiral, leading to a higher number of days lost to sickness and ultimately higher attrition levels. Businesses often view workers with mental health conditions as a significant risk and are still underestimating the prevalence of mental health illness in their workplace.
Jessica’s own experience mirrors this and although she is open about her mental health, she has seen many examples of people reluctant to ask for help or disclose any condition they might have for fear of losing opportunities or promotion.
It is relatively simple to put measures in place to assess and manage stress levels in the workforce.
The greater risk is doing nothing, as ultimately people will leave if they do not feel supported or able to be themselves at work.
Although Jessica has yet to encounter a perfect environment, her best case scenario is one where you feel able to talk openly about health issues without any fear of repercussions, and where it is perfectly OK and normal to do so. External influences such as the media and high profile role models play a very important role.
Even storylines in soaps may create an opportunity for individuals to discuss mental health topics without turning the spotlight on themselves. The power of the water-cooler conversation is very strong. Open communication and greater transparency is the key to continued progress.
Jessica believes that we are not yet at the stage where mental health is openly discussed during interviews, but wellbeing and how an individual looks after themselves should be covered, particularly in a high stress environment. Both sides have a duty of care.
If approached about a mental health issue, a manager needs to listen and not make a snap judgement, otherwise that individual may never have the courage to open up again.
If managers don’t have the answers, they should agree to find out and discuss a course of action to offer the support the individual needs.
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