Start talking about mental health in the workplace

So many of us get our work email on a device at home. So many of us work evenings and weekends, only to come to work the next day and do even more work. So many of us wake up in the night thinking about work, or worse dream about it on a regular basis. We can’t switch off. We eat at our desks and sneak away from our children’s beds to squeeze in a few more emails.

It’s no wonder we’re stressed, anxious and depressed.  

More than 300 million people globally suffer from depression, with depression and anxiety costing the global economy an estimated $1 trillion each year in lost productivity. For South Africans, the statistics are dismal coming in at 1 in 6 people suffering from anxiety, depression or substance abuse problems. This doesn’t even include the more serious conditions like bipolar disorder. Not to mention the biggest issue with these statistics is that they aren’t even a true reflection with so many South Africans afraid to seek help or simply not knowing where to find it.

Did you know that in Zulu there isn’t even a word for depression? It isn’t really deemed a real illness in the African culture. This adds to the layers of complexity in addressing this epidemic in our workplaces.  

Our mental health affects our physical health, we know this. But it also affects our ability to do normal things like concentrating, communicating, and juggling tasks as we keep plodding on, ignoring the underlying problem. We don’t talk about it until we’re past the breaking point.

We’re afraid to talk to our managers for fear of reactions like “we’re all stressed out; just learn to manage it better” or worse we’re afraid our managers will manage us out of the organisation. This burnt out, depressed employee wants to be at work doing their job, but they don’t know what the support choices are, they can’t have a conversation about it, and they feel significant stigma either from others or their own internal voice. These people don’t take the time off that they need and if they do, they give a different reason for their absence. Think about it, if you go to a doctor because you’re overworked and stressed out, what’s the first thing they do for you? Generally, they want to book you off. Generally, we’re given a week, and we’ll take a day.

We can’t solve the underlying issue by punting the illusion of “work-life balance” either. Tom Oxley put it perfectly in his TED Talk (which you’ll find at the end of this article), “In the workplace, we are supposed to have resilience. How do you get resilience? Well, you ought to have a good work-life balance, that’s the first thing. Ah ok life, yes life. Life - the field of flowers that I skip through to and from work. If your life’s anything like mine it contains things like separation, and grief and dental bills…but we soldier on.” Our people are coming into work when they shouldn’t be, and despite some workplaces driving for awareness and discussion around mental health, the workplace still prevails as the place people feel least comfortable talking about it.

Taking on mental health in the workplace is a challenge and a worthy cause, and employers and HR professionals are very well positioned to help drive the narrative and offer a support system for their staff.

The first step is for our leaders to just start talking about it. It sounds simple enough. When people in positions of power speak, others listen. The conversation and the positive sentiment trickle down through the organisation starting with leadership.

Remember, you don’t make more people unwell by talking about mental health. You give them the opportunity to seek help before they reach their breaking point. Make sure that managers are trained to spot the signs and symptoms. Make sure they know how to talk about it, know what to say, when to say it and when to just listen. This is a quintessentially human conversation. For managers having this conversation, it is about being the manager you would want to have if you were in the persons shoes.

Have educational resources available to your staff and start driving awareness initiatives. If you’re implementing a policy or have one already, consider whether your policies are working. Are they too long-winded? Full of jargon? Possibly self-serving? You could actively encourage limiting the out of office work that goes on in your organisation and switching off emails outside of office hours.

Ask the questions. Who is offering support to the staff who need it? Are colleagues also supporting each other? It’s important that the entire organisation knows that they play a role in encouraging others to speak up when they need help. It could be as simple as saying “how are you?” if you see a colleague struggling or checking in regularly with employees who are working totally isolated. Having support services available to staff and making sure they know they have access to it can be a game-changer.

Research by WHO estimates that for every $1 dollar invested into treatment sees a return of around $4 in improved health and productivity. If it’s working for these businesses, it can work for ours too. These programmes aim to improve our corporate cultures and reduce the stigma around mental health. Our workplaces wouldn’t amount to much without our people, so investing in their wellbeing is a no brainer.

Let’s recap:

  1. Leaders, talk about it.
  2. Have support services, make sure your staff know about it and drive awareness.
  3. Make sure your managers are equipped to support the wellbeing of staff.

“The first step to helping patients and loved ones is to get them to talk about it. There are still so many sufferers who feel alone, scared and misunderstood. Increased awareness and a policy of educating the public about mental health issues will encourage more people to share their diagnoses and seek help.” says Cassey Chambers, Operations Director at SADAG.

All your people want is to know that they can speak freely and safely about mental health without fear of judgement or persecution. Give your staff permission to speak and be prepared to listen.

Here’s a fantastic TED Talk by Tom Oxley on mental health in the workplace. If you’ve made it this far, take an extra 10 minutes, it’s well worth it.