Why employers need to take a new approach to mental health issues

By: Guest contributor

Date: 4 February 2014

Why employers need to take a new approach to mental health issues/Young man sitting looking upsetThe statistics show that we probably all work with someone who is experiencing a mental health problem and that in any one year a quarter of us will experience some type of mental health issue, some mild, some less so. With the pressures upon us mounting daily, the reality is that anyone can have a period of time when depression, anxiety or a combination of both may affect them.

And yet, often-hidden bias about people who suffer with mental illnesses (reflected in such comments as “they are flaky, weak or cannot be trusted with key projects or clients") affects the very people who might have ideas that will ensure great success for your business.

Where would be now without Steve Jobs, who suffered with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder? Or Winston Churchill, who referred to his depression as the “black dog” and said it played a major role in World War II, claiming that it was only a recurrent episode of depression that allowed him to realistically assess the threat posed by Germany?

Allowing your bias to assume that someone with a known mental health issue cannot function at work is akin to assuming a wheelchair user cannot travel. Look around you now: if you can see eight people it’s likely that two of them have mental health issues – and even more likely that they’re keeping it to themselves. And is it any wonder, with the comments, jokes and career-damaging decisions that might happen if word got out?

We must create workplaces where we accept human frailty and not condemn others simply because they have, at this point in time, a health issue of any sort.

As part of our training workshops designed to create inclusion for all groups, we often ask leaders to explore their vulnerability. The reason for this is that if I can admit to and understand where I feel most vulnerable, I can better connect and support those around me who are simply experiencing vulnerability in a different way.

So what should organisations do?

Firstly, there must be some acknowledgement that bias exists. Raising awareness and starting conversations is the first step in preventing discrimination and offering a truly inclusive environment for everyone to have the space to be themselves.

Secondly, share some of the statistics mentioned here in a non-judgemental way. Remind your team – and yourself – that someone experiencing this is likely to be sitting not so very far away.

Thirdly, discover more about the issues, offer workshops and resources designed to reduce the stigma.

Fourthly, discourage any jokes, comments or stereotypical judgements around mental health. Actively doing this creates a safe space for those needing support to get through a tough time to openly approach you.

Finally, when they do approach you, don’t make any assumptions. Deal with them in the same way you would anyone sharing with you the fact that they are ill. Support, listen and ask how they want you to help.

Reducing bias around mental health has to be done. We cannot ignore something so prevalent any more than we can ignore our bias against it.

Blog supplied by Angie Peacock, CEO of the People Development Team

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