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Clare Race


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Mental illness at work – a manager’s guide


Mental health literacy is the extent to which lay people are able to recognise mental illnesses in people that they meet in daily life. Whilst we know that people are pretty good at spotting stress or even depression they are much less able to recognize schizophrenia or identify a personality disorder in a colleague.

Improving mental health literacy

To improve the mental health literacy of people at work is not to turn them into amateur psychiatrists but rather to know what different behaviour means and the sort of help and intervention that can be offered. By shedding some light on this topic we can provide some practical food for thought for managers in the workplace.

There is a dark side of behaviour at work and a surprisingly large number of people at work “fail and derail”. Estimates put this to be around 50% for senior managers. In plain terms this means that half of all people appointed to senior management positions will fail in some way whether that be through plateauing below the level they were expected to reach; causing poor moral and business results, or in extreme cases getting sacked or ending up in prison.  A part explanation of this is the extent to which people with certain sub-clinical personality disorders like narcissism and anti-social personality disorder can thrive in business. Thanks to the brilliant insights of people such as Robert Hogan we have begun to understand how the personality disorders can lead to people being promoted to senior positions only to cause mayhem all around them.

The impact of personality disorders

But what impact do personality disorders have in a broader business context?  And how does this fit in with the wider mental health agenda?  How does one tell if a colleague is suffering from a serious mental illness or if they are just suffering from the winter blues?  How can we distinguish between those with personality disorders and those ‘normal’ difficult individuals we all come up against at work? 

There is a lot that individuals can do – from having a greater awareness of the trigger signs of mental illness; both in themselves and in others through to challenging stigma and knowing when to reach out to a colleague in distress.  Organisations though, must also play a role and despite an improved understanding about mental illness many employers still fail to address the issue of mental health at work in a proactive way.  Organisations for example who have implemented initiatives aimed at managing workplace stress have had considerable success but these companies are still very much in the minority and more severe health problems such as depression are largely ignored.

Reality v perception

Part of the problem is the disparity between managers’ perception of mental health problems in their workforce and the reality of how frequently it occurs. In a survey of 550 senior managers in the private and public sector, for the Shaw Trust, one in 10 managers reported that none of their employees were likely to ever suffer from mental illness. This indicates that managers are not aware of the full extent of mental illness and do not characterise common workplace problems such as stress and depression in this way. Furthermore the interventions that are geared towards addressing mental illness in the workplace are often reactive in nature and focus on how to cope with mental illness when it becomes a problem.  If this epidemic is to be properly addressed in today’s workplace a more proactive approach to creating a healthy workplace is needed.

Approaching mental illness in this way should not be seen as an obligation to those who may be at risk of illness but rather as a smart way of looking after your greatest asset; your people. A workplace environment that approaches mental health in a positive way supports the well-being of all employees, not just those at risk, and encourages a culture of openness about sensitive matters including mental health problems. Looking after staff in this way has many benefits such as encouraging loyalty, job satisfaction, increased productivity and organisational commitment. 

Companies are in a position to do something to respond and pre-empt causal factors and these steps can be broken into three broad areas:

Promoting a positive attitude towards mental health:

  • Encouraging mental health education
  • Part of the responsibility of today’s organisation and its leaders is in educating the work force. Investing in this is good for business. The costs of poorly managed mental health problems in the workplace are astronomical and on the rise.
  • Challenging stigma
  • One of the most prominent areas where mentally ill people suffer because of negative attitudes is in the workplace. Labelling can have a negative impact on their income, work status and ability to cope. Organisations have a responsibility to challenge this stigma through education and awareness raising.
  • Promoting happiness and well-being
  • Often work itself can be a trigger for mental illness and promoting happier organisations is one of the most important ways an employer can reverse the trend.  This can be done in lots of ways such as encouraging employees to engage in charity work and provide them with the time to do so; advocating a strength-based approach to performance management and appraisals and encouraging leaders to role model happiness in their behaviours.

Understanding and addressing organisational barriers:

  • Assessing the culture of the organisation – is it one that helps or hinders a healthy state of mind? Is work perceived to be worthwhile, full of purpose and aligned to ‘the greater good’?  Are toxic individuals and derailing leaders dealt with in an appropriate way?
  • Ensuring the top team in the organisation is aware of and willing to address the mental health agenda. Do senior leaders role model appropriate behaviours and make a public commitment to the issue?
  • Identifying potential work place hazards and developing systems to encourage a healthy approach to work.  For instance is there a culture of presenteeism and long hours that could be addressed?

Monitoring the situation:

  • Actively targeting depression, stress and other mental illnesses with key performance indicators
  • Measuring productivity and thereby promoting mental health
  • Building a ‘mental health at work’ referral system where individuals are clear about the process to follow if they have concerns about themselves or a colleague.

With these types of interventions we can at last see improvements in the mental health of the workforce and the topic can finally move up the agenda of many public and private sector organisations. 


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