As the UK gears up for this year’s World Mental Health Day, it is important to remind ourselves that the biggest inequality in workplace mental health is between the people who have experienced mental ill health and those who have not. Just because we’re all hearing more about mental ill health these days due to its prevalence in the workplace, doesn’t mean that we understand it.
In fact, unless you have felt the impact of the constant negative thinking or paranoia that can be caused by anxiety or the lethargy and sadness caused by depression, it can be difficult to appreciate how debilitating it is.
If so many of us are not feeling great mentally, why aren’t we better at supporting ourselves and each other at work?
The impact of stress on our mental health
Even without a mental ill health condition, we can all be impacted by the stress and pressure of our work and the problems we face in our personal lives and that can impact how mentally well we feel. It can be tiring, emotional and confusing, and of course, it’s bound to affect our ability to stay on our a-game. Interestingly, only 13% of people were found to be living with high levels of positive mental health according to a large study of UK mental health. Which begs the question, if so many of us are not feeling great mentally, why aren’t we better at supporting ourselves and each other at work?
1. We are paid to perform
This is by far the biggest blocker. We are paid to do a job and to do it well. There is an expectation that we turn up for work ready to perform and that we deal with any issues that could affect our delivery. For anyone dealing with mental ill health, this is a big ask. Often it’s because we’re not ‘in our right mind’ and so organising ourselves, making important decisions, leading others, they all become difficult when we haven’t got mental clarity.
Leaders who notice that people aren’t themselves or seem to be struggling must recognise that the normal standards they would hold people to are often not realistic when people’s mental health has been affected. It requires compassion and tolerance to help that individual get through tough times. It may also require less expectation around what needs to be delivered, or additional resources to get the work done.
2. We think mental ill health is weak
The fact is that some of the brightest, most capable and highest performing individuals suffer from mental ill health. They have anxiety, they have panic attacks, they struggle to get out of bed in the morning, they constantly criticise themselves, and they often feel overwhelmed. Yet most of them hide it and they crack on regardless. If you have no appreciation for the experiences that others have in relation to mental ill health, you will find it hard as a leader to accommodate anything other than perfect performance.
When you are conscious of the fact that we are all fallible, that some people feel things on a deeper level than others, that even the most capable and able of people need to know they are valued, you can adjust the way you relate to and communicate with the people around you. Just because someone looks confident and capable on the outside, doesn’t mean that they feel like that on the inside. That doesn’t make them weak, it just means they experience the world differently from you.
There are leaders who say they have been ‘traumatised’ by the pandemic with 82% of leaders reporting exhaustion
3. We have a rigid view of flexibility
When people ask for flexible working these days, they want more than the ability to flex their core hours or do a compressed working week. They want to have jobs that to some extent can flex around their lives. For people who experience mental ill health or who are going through a difficult emotional period, they may need to constantly adjust the way that they work in order to deliver.
Leaders need to understand that needing a lot of flexibility to deliver in their job often isn’t a sign of laziness or a lack of willingness. It’s about finding ways to do the job well knowing that you have other pressures and areas of your life that require attention.
There are obviously limitations to everyone having total flexibility, as we work in teams and with clients and that requires some level of team alignment. However, as long as everyone knows what they need to deliver (priorities and success factors for the role) and by when, and as long as they take accountability for that, it’s amazing how much flexibility you can allow into the system.
4. Leaders have mental ill health too
Unfortunately, the pandemic has caused many problems, not only for our employees but for our leaders too. Having to respond to a crisis, managing fragmented teams, redundancies and furlough, frontline delivery (especially in the medical profession), the intensity brought into personal relationships, and the balancing act for parents of work and home, have all taken their toll. It’s created damage that will take a long time to fix.
There are leaders who say they have been ‘traumatised’ by the pandemic with 82% of leaders reporting exhaustion. There is very little let up for many and so leaders are running on empty and that exhaustion negatively impacts mental health.
Unless leaders give themselves permission to take care of themselves, and unless they have people they can speak to who can help them to make sense of their complex worlds, many end up suffering in silence. Often leaders aren’t even aware of the stress and anxiety they are experiencing because they are so focused on getting the job done, that they rarely stop to fully consider how they are. Even if they did, many wouldn’t know how to fix it as there is so little signposting and support for leaders in organisations (and many feel unable to admit they are not feeling at their best).
So what does all of this tell us?
Most people need help with their mental health at some point in their lives (some need ongoing support). Unless you have experienced mental ill health it can be hard to empathise and offer the right support, so get educated on the subject. The pressure of modern life has put our mental health under more strain, so normalising the conversation about mental health and what we need to thrive is an important part of organisational culture.
Leaders suffer too so make sure there is adequate support for them
Clearly, some people will need more flexibility than others if they are to deliver the best job, be open-minded about that. Leaders suffer too so make sure there is adequate support for them. Often ‘letting off steam’ in a safe team or coaching setting keeps leaders mentally well and so creating that space is important.