Friday May 15, 2015
Preface by Jo Harley, managing director, Purple Cubed
At Purple Cubed, we have never shied away from tackling the important but occasionally sensitive issues that matter to businesses and employees.
With that in mind, to mark the end of Mental Health Awareness Week, we asked award winning mental health journalist Karen Bester to give us a rare, candid and raw opinion of what it’s like to be an employee living with a mental health condition.
Using her own personal experiences, Karen gives her advice to employers as to how they can tackle the taboo of mental health in the workplace.
In keeping with the spirit of breaking barriers and maintaining transparency around reporting on mental health in the workplace, the following piece of writing is completely unedited and uncensored.
“This is a busy, demanding position with strict deadlines. With that in mind, can you tell me how you would cope with stress?”
Variations of this question are the staple of interviews in most lines of work. The counter-staple, the response, is usually something along the lines of, “I find stress at work a motivating factor.”
It was certainly my go-to answer, and it was actually meant in sincerity: I do find stress a driving force. The problem is twofold, though; when is motivational stress dangerous stress, and what of employees who are already disadvantaged with pre-existing anxieties, and other (sometimes serious) mental health conditions?
I have struggled with mental health problems since my early teens, and was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic features in my mid-twenties. Unfortunately for me, and for my employer at the time, diagnosis and treatment came after a serious breakdown that saw me lose that job. While my difficulties had very little to do with the role itself, my boss (with whom I kept in contact) was left asking herself, “was there anything we could have done differently? How do we manage future team members who deal with similar illnesses?”
I admitted that I probably wasn't the best person to advise her directly, but the benefit of hindsight, experience and (I hope) a dollop of common sense has led me to develop a few thoughts on the matter.
In the first instance, training about mental health is an imperative. You don't need to buy a copy of psychiatric textbooks detailing every possible condition for each team or department, but it's important to at least know what to look out for – has your colleague's mood slipped? Is s/he behaving out of character? In what ways? And what can you do? If done properly – perhaps by a mental health nurse, social worker, occupational health professional or other expert in the field who is willing to do this type of consultancy work – a good course can answer all these questions, and a lot more besides. It should also convey to your staff that a mental health problem should be treated in much the same way as any other type of sickness (accounting, of course, for individual circumstances).
Perhaps, budget permitting, you could get the training facilitator to peruse your sickness and well-being policies. How has your HR department framed these?
- Have they accounted for the possibility of variability in an employee's illness?
- Have they controlled for situations where a person may become acutely ill at work, and how other employees and management can deal quickly and effectively with both the incident and the aftermath thereof?
- How do they recommend you support individuals directly before a potential crisis (and, ideally, help prevent it in the first place), as well as during and after?
- How well have they proposed dealing with reasonable adjustments as legislated for under the Disability Discrimination Act? Is it possible to extend these beyond the statutory minimum to give staff in need the best possible working experience?
These issues are, of course, important factors in physical illnesses as well, so it's doubly important to get them right. Furthermore, many organisations are now developing specific action plans and policies in regards to mental health, and you may wish to consider the benefits of this yourself. The charity Mind has lots of advice on developing such strategies, as well as general advice for both employers and staff for managing mental health in the workplace.
I wish there was a magic wand that waved the solutions and recommendations into existence and automatically tailored them to every possible scenario of this nature. Since there isn't, my best suggestion for effectively implementing the above is simple: talk to your people.
Easier said than done, perhaps. Mental health problems are still highly stigmatised and derided in contemporary society. I have always found this a curious phenomenon – if we believe the medical model of psychiatry, mental illness is merely a manifestation of a biochemical imbalance, and as such is little more than a physical illness. If we believe in social and psychological theories, then the sufferer has been through events that have seriously damaged his or her psyche. In either case, the cause of the difficulty has rarely had anything to do with the individual experiencing them, so why do their issues remain in the realm of under-the-carpet brushing?
It's not the role of employers to embark on nationwide anti-stigma activism, obviously – but it is their role to educate their employees on relevant issues. And mental health very much is one, particularly as it's estimated that up to one in four people struggle with conditions of this nature .
And then we get back to the simple – but sometimes revolutionary – act of conversation.
As with any good discourse, this is a two-way street. As well as you talking to your employee, they should be opening up to you too. In my own case, I blurted out my 'confession' of mental illness to my manager (well before leaving the job), but it doesn't have to be (in fact, it probably shouldn't be!) some sort of grandiose approach. A brief allusion during an organically evolving discussion is really all that is needed to kick-start a respectful dialogue.
It's quite common in both the tertiary and public sectors to conduct 'supervision', a one-on-one meeting between manager and employee, to discuss the latter's well-being as well as productivity. This is still relatively uncommon in the private sector, but could pay dividends in any organisation; if private, cordial and respectful communication of this nature was a regular occurrence, it encourages a trustful rapport that could help erode a perception of stigma surrounding mental illness. If your employee is a sufferer, this could be a vehicle to bring that up with you.
I had supervision. I had a (relatively) supportive company culture and manager. We had mental health training (albeit to a very basic level). I still lost my job after a long period of absence. So what's the point of me saying any of this?
As an employer, you won't – you can't – win every battle. You will lose potentially very good people over the years, whether through these circumstances or the multitude of others that cause people to leave specific jobs. But you can work to the best of your company's ability to mitigate these losses. Training, talking and respecting all your employees, and affording certain allowances to those that really need it, will go a long way to ensure that they feel valued as an employee. If in the end they do become ill, through their suffering they'll know that they're important enough to your organisation to receive all the support you can reasonably provide.
This can only pay you dividends in return.
Karen Bester is an award-winning mental health writer from Belfast, Northern Ireland.
 Mental health emergencies can be extremely frightening for witnesses, but – again – decent training should equip staff with the know-how required to manage the situation. It's also very important to bear in mind that the reputation of mental illness in the media is fallacious: it is highly unusual for sufferers to be violent towards others. Remember, too, that with most conditions the afflicted individual is probably much more scared than others around him or her.
 It's perhaps not entirely obvious as to how DDA provisions should be executed vis a vis mental health conditions. This is a key example of why it's important to talk to your employee individually: he or she can guide you, and HR and management can then hopefully implement any suggestions in a fashion that accommodates the business as well as the staff member. Cost-effective ideas for adjustments would include the allowance of communication using email rather than the phone; the use of a free meeting room for brief 'times-out' or even mindfulness exercises; and of course the old cliché of flexible employment – that of working from home, even if it's only occasionally or for an afternoon per week.
 See http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/help-information/mental-health-statistics/. Depression and anxiety are, statistically, the most commonly diagnosed mental health conditions.