Illustration: Karolin Schnoor
Illustration: Karolin Schnoor

WORK NEWS

Are we finally beginning to talk honestly about mental health in the workplace?

Around one in four of us will experience a mental-health problem this year says Louisa Pritchard. But will we be able to tell our boss why we’re taking the day off?

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When Hayley Smith was at her lowest point in her battle with depression, she plucked up the courage to talk to her boss. She had found a counsellor, but would need time off work to go to the sessions, and said, “To be honest, I wasn't expecting a motherly hug or an ‘Everything is going to be OK’. I expected professionalism and support. Instead, I received a negative response from my boss, who even asked if I was strong enough for the job.”

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. One in four of us will experience a mental-health problem this year. Yet nine out of 10 people with mental-health problems say they’ve experienced some kind of discrimination, while almost a third who had taken time off work because of their mental-health issue felt they were treated differently by their manager when they went back to the office.

Hayley, 28, felt so isolated by the lack of support she eventually quit. She now runs her own company, Boxed Out PR, and says, “I am used to people not having a clue how to deal with me talking about my depression but, as an employer, you have a responsibility to your employees to support, grow and encourage, and it just wasn't there. Would they have the same response to a pregnant woman or someone diagnosed with a serious illness?”

95 per cent of people who took time off work due to stress or anxiety didn’t tell their manager the real reason

Her treatment is just one example of the wall of silence that surrounds mental ill health at work. When Time to Change, an anti-stigma campaign run by mental-health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, published their Public Attitudes survey in 2014, it found 95 per cent of people who took time off work due to stress or anxiety didn’t tell their manager the real reason. Nearly half said they felt uncomfortable talking to an employer about mental health. Sure, we can talk about physical illness, but discuss our depression, anxiety, panic attacks? Not so much.

Yet there does seem to be a change in the air. Increased media attention on mental-health awareness (take Mind's annual awards for responsible reporting of mental-health issues) coupled with ongoing work from mental-health organisations to eliminate discrimination and stigma seems to have brought the issue increasingly to the fore.

There’s also a generational shift in talking about mental health. While the fear of stigma and discrimination most definitely hasn’t disappeared, an increased openness among Generation Y and millennials about their own mental health is slowly having an impact. A study found in 2004 that 60 per cent of people agreed that “people today spend too much time dwelling on their emotional difficulties”. By 2014, just 39 per cent of people held that opinion.

It's filtering through in other ways. A poll this year from leading UK mental-health charity Mind found a quarter of TV viewers suffering from mental-health problems sought help after watching a mental-health storyline. Added to this, more of us are talking about our own battles with mental health. Take journalist Bryony Gordon, who has been brilliantly open in her new book, Mad Girl, about her ongoing battle with OCD. Cara Delevingne tweeted earlier this year about her own mental-health struggle, saying, “I suffer from depression and was a model during a particularly rough patch of self-hatred.” And, in her first speech as prime minister, Theresa May also put the issue firmly in the spotlight, saying, “If you suffer from mental-health problems, there’s not enough help to hand.”

According to Time to Change, there has been an 8.3 per cent improvement in public attitudes towards people with mental-health problems since 2007, although there’s still work to be done, as the campaign's spokesperson, Rosie McKearney, noted, “We want every employer to create a working environment where people can open up to mental-health problems; to talk and to listen.”

Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, has also noticed a shift, dubbing it the “quiet revolution… taking place around the water cooler as more and more people talk openly about mental health”. He said, “We are now at a tipping point, with increasing acknowledgement from employers that more needs to be done to help people stay well at work.”

So, which employers are listening? One of the first companies to sign up to the government’s 2011 Public Health Responsibility Deal – which has eight pledges, including giving staff the option to train as Mental Health First Aiders – was professional services firm EY.

We are now at a tipping point, with increasing acknowledgement from employers that more needs to be done to help people stay well at work.

“In the same way that anyone can get a cold or flu, anyone can be affected by a mental-health issue,’ says Paul Quinlan, a senior manager in the employee relations team at the company. “There’s greater awareness in society generally, along with more acceptance that people with mental ill health can be successful at work. Our approach is to place mental and physical ill health on an equal footing – many of us are likely to be ill at some point and we want to support the process of rehabilitation.”

It’s something Cesca Baguley, a senior advisor with the professional services firm, and Carina Williams, an administrator there, have both benefited from. Carina was diagnosed with depression after her civil partnership broke down, while Cesca had overcome an eating disorder in her teens and was unsure if she would be able to talk about it at work.

“I had recovered from my eating disorder before I started at EY three years ago, but I was very conscious of moving down to London and what impact that could have on me,” recounts Cesca. “I thought it was something I wouldn’t be able to discuss at work and was worried if it would be marked against me. It hasn’t in any way. I know the firm will always support me and if I’m struggling, it won’t impact me or be viewed as a negative.”

Carina Williams has also experienced a similar openness after her relationship breakdown: “We all have counsellors who guide you through your career at EY and I felt totally able to talk to her about my situation. She knew I was still a bit fragile and when there were a few days when I couldn’t face going into work, she was incredibly supportive, as were my colleagues.”

Carina has since signed up for their Mental Health First Aid course, which teaches people how to identify and help a person who may be developing a mental-health issue. “Before my depression, I was very much a ‘pull your socks up’ kind of person. When it happened to me, it gave me a much greater appreciation of what other people might be feeling.”

According to psychologist Linda Blair, workplace support and openness like this is crucial. “If companies can help share that fact, it will help. People can then look round the room and know that it’s likely other people will have mental-health issues as well. They realise they are not the only one.”

@Lou_Pritch

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Illustration: Karolin Schnoor
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