Gwen Jones explores poor and unsupported mental health in the working environment.
Racking my brains for a physical health reason that could justify not going into work seemed natural two years ago whilst battling a bout of depression and anxiety. My brain struggled to swing my legs out of bed and get up, let alone find a valid excuse other than what was really going on – anxiety and depression.
It was in my mind, a heavy feeling in my chest, and a knotted feeling in my stomach. “Sorry, I can’t make it in today, I’ve been up all night throwing up,” I told my boss at the time. The shame could only be drowned in the weight of my duvet cover as I drifted back off to sleep on a Monday morning.
Responsible for a loss of 72 million working days, the stigma remains unbroken for several workplaces in the UK. MHFA England reports that sickness off work due to mental ill-health is costing around £1.4 billion a year.
“Of course, that’s the latest trend now isn’t it?” my colleague responded when I told him I’m a mental health blogger. Experiencing mental illness whilst in a working environment showed me the lack of mental health awareness or even acknowledgement there can be in the workplace.
Why is Mental Health in the Workplace Important?
We will each individually spend around 90,000 hours of our lifetime at work, according to Business Insider. With fast-paced technology, minds that are constantly ticking and surviving on caffeine, a lot of us will struggle to get away from emails and work group chats. Add that onto your working hours and it makes sense why taking care of your mental health at work is crucial.
Just like physical health, keeping an eye on your mental health is important. Because we all have a mental health and throughout a lifetime, we will all experience poor mental health. 676 million people are affected by “mental health issues worldwide” says MHFA
England. Whether it’s stress or diagnosed clinical depression, everybody’s mental health needs to be taken care of.
Without the support from employers and colleagues, our mental health can quickly spiral when we aren’t on top form. Encouraging workplaces to start talking is not just beneficial anymore, it could save thousands and essential for keeping individuals safe.
Stress is a normal and healthy reaction that we all experience. It can come as a result of “your environment, your body, and your thoughts”, says Cleveland Clinic. Even positive experiences such as childbirth and job promotions can evoke a reaction of stress. But stress becomes unhealthy when it begins to affect our day-to-day.
Trainer of Mental Health First Aid England, Jess Woolley refers to everyday stress as a “stress container”. Due to “biological, physical, and social” factors some are more vulnerable to stress and are less able to cope with certain stresses. Stress not dealt with can lead to serious implications on your mental health. Working can have various benefits for our mental health due to routine, social interaction, and keeping financial stability. But, equally, a toxic environment can be highly detrimental.
‘Jackie had to leave her NHS job of 11 years due to bullying by the Sister in charge or her department… She’d reached out for support from the hospital’s union after it had begun to affect her mental health, but they failed to investigate into the matter.’
Experiences of Poor Mental Health in the Workplace.
Experiences of ill-mental health has become all too familiar in the workplace. With ever-increasing deadline pressures and a need to continuously do better, stress in the workplace has increased slightly over the years. In 2018/19, 12.8 million working days were lost due to stress, as reported by HSE.
Last November saw the release of the “Mental Health at Work” website which can be used to create tailored mental health programmes for workplaces through a “framework approach”. As part of the Mental Health Foundation, the programme helps to bring awareness and understanding to the workplace. It helps workplaces to “review, adapt and evolve policies and resources to support workplace mental health”.
But, for many, the issue remains. Jackie had to leave her NHS job of 11 years due to bullying by the Sister in charge or her department. She’d reached out for support from the hospital’s union after it had begun to affect her mental health, but they failed to investigate into the matter. Like many victims of bullying in the workplace, Jackie wasn’t fully aware that the way she was treated wasn’t right.
“It took me a long time to realise that I was being bullied because she was very clever about it,” she says. “She [line manager] got other people to do her dirty work…she gave them the bullet for them to fire.” Unsurprisingly, with the lack of support from the union, her mental health was greatly impacted, causing her to take early retirement.
A survey of 20 people revealed the extremities that stress in the workplace is causing. Respondents of the survey came from various industry working backgrounds including education, healthcare, and retail. A high percentage worked in healthcare and education industries, interestingly highlighted to be correlated with mental health issues in an HSE report.
What was missing for several respondents was support at work when they were experiencing mental health issues. What flagged up for a few respondents was “stress” and “bullying”, either by co-workers or bosses. One respondent explained how they had experienced “work related stress due to the volume of work, unrealistic expectations and being unsupported” that led to seven months off sick. This was in a nursing job where there was complete lack of support and “acknowledgement of what caused it in the first place and no attempt to change the situation”.
Another respondent commented “In the old retail job I had it was highly discouraged to take sick days; the whole process was extremely complicated & there was bitching amongst managerial staff if anyone was home due to poor mental health. This made me dread work even more as I knew if I had a bad day, I couldn’t do anything about it. ” Their zero-hour contract of unpredictability also made it difficult to maintain a social life which led to isolation and “slip[ping] into depression”.
There were several factors that contributed to poor mental health including the “bitching amongst managerial staff” for the respondent, but these issues could have been resolved if only there had been a presence of support. This rings true for Jackie Davies who’s chosen to remain anonymous.
Guy Tolhurst, who opened up about his mental health issues to his team of colleagues in 2018 shared advice on tackling the dreaded talk, reported by The Telegraph. Although many of his employees have been trained up as Mental Health First Aiders, he says tackling the problem can be a lot simpler than that. He advises team walks, doing challenges and getting out of the office for meetings – “Changing your environment can reduce inhibitions and encourage conversation”.
Located in the heart of Bath, Bath Mind are consistently working with employers to improve workplace wellbeing and increase awareness surrounding mental health. With experience of personal mental illness, Head of Fundraising, Hannah Roper tells me about the importance of their Workplace Wellbeing scheme.
Her previous job opened her eyes to “poor working environment[s] especially around staff wellbeing”. The toxic workplace affected a lot of people’s mental health, including her own. Focused on reaching targets, achieving sales and gaining income, “looking after staff mental health was not on the agenda at all”. Alongside Bath Mind she is now working to better mental health awareness and place an increasing focus on workplace wellbeing. They work with employees and employers to bring awareness to mental health and enable them to both approach and talk safely in the workplace.
Not only do they promote mental health in the workplace, but it seems they practice what they preach. Hannah tells me of the difference in attitude she saw once she began working at Bath Mind, “we can all talk freely about having bad days and we don’t judge each other for that. We have an open-door policy where everybody can speak to everybody”.
Several other organisations are getting on board with the workplace wellbeing policy, including the Black Dog Institute. Their research highlights six areas – smarter work design, resilience, early intervention, building better work cultures, supporting recovery and increasing awareness. Mental health awareness goes beyond simply talking, support, awareness, and change are crucial for ensuring change.
“Looking after staff mental health was not on the agenda at all”
The document reiterates the importance of mental health in the workplace as stated by Hannah from Bath Mind claiming that mental illness is “the leading cause of sickness absence and long-term work” today. Whilst these statistics are being spoken about and looked at, progress is slow in changing individual’s attitudes in the workplace, particularly influenced by misinformation. ⅓ of the public believe that people with a severe illness are dangerous, say MHFA England – the truth is, they’re much more of a danger to themselves.
Mental Health First Aid Training.
A two-day MHFA course really opened my eyes up to the lack of positive attitudes there are in workplaces regarding mental health. Jess Woolley believes it won’t be long before mental health first aid becomes as mandatory as physical first aid in the workplace.
MHFA is an important asset for recognising signs in others such as suicide, anxiety, self-harm and other symptoms of poor mental health. The course highlights the importance of looking after one’s own mental health through self-care techniques, particularly after having a difficult conversation. Despite having my own experience of anxiety and depression and witnessing the effects of bipolar on a loved one, I learnt a lot on the course. Through practical work such as case studies we were able to establish how conversations could differ depending on circumstance, age, and individual tendencies.
With companies such as Lloyds Banking Group hoping to train up more than 2,500 employees by 2020 a change of attitude looks hopeful. Among some of Britain’s “biggest companies” to have undergone MHFA training is National Grid, SSE and Rolls-Royce, reported by The Guardian.
MHFA England say it can “build employees’ confidence to have open conversations around mental health and break the stigma”. But research conducted by HSE Gov shows that there is no evidence to show that the training has bettered the “organisational management of mental health in workplaces”. There’s also little evidence to prove that those experiencing poor mental health have received improved support from MHFA trained colleagues which could be influenced by individual attitudes or that present fear of approaching the topic.
‘Around one in eight men have a “common mental health problem”
Men Matter Too
An element often overlooked when we discuss mental health is the stigma that surrounds men and their inability to be vulnerable or seek the help they need. Around one in eight men have a “common mental health problem” in England, says the Mental Health Foundation. Although changing, societal expectations on men such as being the traditional breadwinners and an absence of emotion can take its toll. An old-fashioned but somewhat expected of men is the financial responsibility that comes with holding down a full-time job. Mix this with mental health issues that are ignored to avoid any time off work or risk of unemployment and you soon have an even bigger problem. Men are also guilty of trying “to work things out themselves” say Men’s Mind Matter.Research has shown that men are less likely than women to seek help for a mental health problem due to the “man up” stigma.
Of all referrals, only 36% of them made to Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) were done by men. Worryingly, of those that have completed suicide in the UK each year, 75% have been men, show statistics by MHFA England. Although the number of those that attempt suicide is higher in women, men are the most likely to complete suicide. The awareness around men’s mental health and their struggle to speak out has certainly grown with charities and organisations highlighting the topic in their work such as the Campaign Against Living Miserable (CALM). The charity is currently focusing on preventing suicide, highlighting the fact that it’s the “the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK and the cause of 18 deaths every day”.
‘So long as stigmatising attitudes exist surrounding mental health, toxic working environments will remain. It’s less about mental health awareness and more about changing attitudes of those who remain ignorant to what is a current issue and not a “trend”.
LGBTQ+ and BME.
The LGBTQ+ and BME community are at higher risk of developing a mental health problem due to ongoing societal issues such as transphobia, racism, and homophobia. Referred to as one of ‘The Six Equality Strands’, MHFA England say that “the common factor BME communities in England share is the experience of being treated as different… and experiencing discrimination”. Anti-racist charity Show Racism the Red Card also say that racism has doubled in the last five years. A big factor of this can be placed on the “hostile environment” that was created five years ago, “towards immigration and it didn’t just come around Brexit, it was there before that”.
Several factors can contribute to poor mental health from an early age for the LGBT community that result in “feelings of isolation and low self-esteem”. Minds Out were unable to comment on this matter at this time. But they are a project “run by and for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Queer people”, helping to support those part of the community.
How to Tackle Mental Health in the Workplace
So long as stigmatising attitudes exist surrounding mental health, toxic working environments will remain. It’s less about mental health awareness and more about changing attitudes of those who remain ignorant to what is a current issue and not a “trend”. Workplaces must put in place strategies or mechanisms for colleagues to go to during times of stress or trauma. Often when mental health problems are as a result of the workplace, it’s overlooked.
When I experienced poor mental health and had to take a month off work due to anxiety, the toxic environment I was working in was completely overlooked. There was no offering of support or checking in on how I was getting on once I’d returned. And so, the challenge remains in how do we better mental health in the workplace when the workplace is the cause?
What’s crucial is that as individuals, we change our attitudes towards mental health and particularly those experiencing poor mental health. When we don’t understand something, we are all guilty of being somewhat ignorant to the matter. Research, awareness and understanding are key implications to put into the workplace surrounding mental health. MHFA England offer various courses from free guides, half-day courses and two-day courses that qualify you as a mental health first aider.