The Mental Health Survival Toolkit for Employers (by an Employee)
Following the article I wrote on my own brush with bipolarism, I received the most amazing email from a reader. An anonymous reader. They sent me an article but they didn’t want their name attached to it because, sadly, they felt it would affect their employability.
I understand that.
People sent me messages after I posted my article telling me that I’m brave to talk about what I went through. I don’t believe I am. I work for myself and don’t plan to return to employment, so I have nothing to lose. Therefore, bravery didn’t come into it. If I was still in the corporate world, I probably wouldn’t have posted the article (although Open for Ideas wouldn’t exist either, so it’s a moot point!)
This only goes to highlight the fact that most employers still need to work on their attitudes to mental health. Because their traditional ‘keep shtum’ approach is doing them as much harm as it does their employees. It dampens the creative abilities of their most valuable people.
Whoever the anonymous writer is, I want to extend my sincerest thanks. I feel immensely privileged that you chose to share your thoughts with us. I just hope you feel free enough to do it publicly one day.
You’ve read all the NHS guides (if you haven’t I’d highly recommend it), maybe even done some training. But I am no doctor. This is just one human being talking to another and trying to give you perspective on what happens on the other side and how you can help.
So here you are, reading this little online article because:
a) you want to improve the general wellbeing of the people you work with,
b) you’re concerned about someone in particular, or
c) someone has shared with you that they’re fighting the good fight.
Thank you – any of those reasons means you’re a very decent human being.
I realise how overwhelming this could make you feel, but keeping a job and a regular routine is so essential to the improvement of one’s wellbeing and it has an immense payoff. That’s why I’ve put together a toolkit, a guide of sorts to help you understand and be there for your people in a constructive, positive way.A lot of people and organisations are in denial about the existence of mental health problemsClick To Tweet
Step 1. Acknowledge the existence of mental health
A lot of people and organisations are in denial about the existence of mental health problems. That’s why there is such a massive stigma attached to mental health and we all know people who see the world in binary terms – you’re either sane or insane. The important thing about mental health is that there is a nuance (just like regular illness) and different conditions require a different approach.
Be more vocal about the support available for employees, but also be aware that a lot of people feel very reserved to ask for support at the workplace because they might be concerned it would affect their record. No one will come to you in the middle of the day and shout it in front of their colleagues. So listen for the passing comments, the weekends spent drinking, or not doing anything, the fatigue. They are testing and watching your reaction, seeing if they can trust you.
Step 2. Behaviour
Look for changes in behaviour. There is a reason mental illness is also referred to as a ‘silent’ illness. People tend to withdraw and keep to themselves as there is a lot of shame associated with mental health. You can feel it’s inappropriate to bring this to work so a lot of people hold it down and hide it because they’re afraid it will affect your business and their employment. After a certain amount of time, it becomes easier to say you feel tired or you’ve got the flu rather than to admit you’re having a long, bad episode.
Step 3. Provide a safe space
People dealing with mental illness are very likely to not be drinking as it might be affecting their condition so they can often feel excluded from socialising in company events such as Beer Thursdays or Booze Cruises. It is always worth thinking about culture outside of alcohol, such as team lunches or bigger events.
Make sure you think inclusively and you nurture all relationships with your team. If people see you putting in the effort they are much more likely to open up.
Step 4. Respect and understanding
One of the hardest things is to come to your manager and tell them you’re fighting mental illness. It’s something incredibly brave; it means this person trusts you enough to not be judged. Do not ask what their diagnosis is. Some of them you’re born with, some are the result of your environment and home situation, some of them could even be caused by work. Try to listen and keep an open mind.
The brilliant thing about people who suffer from mental health is that they can be the canaries of your office. They are usually good at picking up the overall mood of the office and how people are feeling about work. I know it might be tough, but it’s better to address those issues on time rather than deal with overworked people and big turnovers.
Let them know you’re there for them, that they’re supported and most importantly suspend any judgement and understand where they’re coming from.
Do not make any assumptions. Being bipolar is very different from suffering anxiety. So is having an eating disorder or depression. They require very different approaches. You can ask them to get information from their GP or therapist. That will help you better understand and support your friend at work (because if someone shares something like this they are no longer just a colleague).
Let them be in control of their personal information – some people feel brave enough to carry their mental health like a crown, others like to keep it as private as possible (again, fighting a massive stigma). Different people will approach it in different ways, but it’s up to them with whom and how they share this information.
I do realise different companies have different policies so if you have to let HR know only do it with the knowledge of your friend (or even better, do it together). This is about trust so always respect that.
Step 5. Wellness contracts
A great idea from some very kind people is wellness contracts. Again, there is a lot of shame attached to mental health problems and none of those people want to feel like a burden or lose their jobs. So how can you help? Basically you and your friend “sign” an agreement of how you’re going to support them if they’re having an episode.
It could be if someone is struggling with very bad anxiety you send them to work from home, or if they’re having bad depressive episode you go out together for lunch. Talk and agree together (preferably with the notes from their GP or therapist). People with mental health issues are amazing, creative and they see the world in a different way. At first it might be scary, but always remember that they’re a human being, much bigger than their diagnosis. They are your friend.
Mental health and work performance are directly linked. It’s all life. Thank you for fighting the good fight together. Thank you for your love, your patience and your understanding. It could save a life.Mental health and work performance are directly linked. It’s all life.Click To Tweet
Recommended reading: Mental Health Toolkit for Employershttp://openforideas.org/blog/2017/05/12/mental-health-survival-toolkit-for-employers-by-an-employee/https://i1.wp.com/openforideas.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/headinhands_mental_health.jpg?fit=1024%2C576https://i1.wp.com/openforideas.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/headinhands_mental_health.jpg?resize=150%2C150Diversity & Divergencyalcohol,anxiety,bipolar,depression,judgement,mental health,mental illness,nhs,policy,respect,shame,toolkit,understanding