Awareness of mental health issues in the workplace show signs of progress

Awareness of mental health issues in the workplace show signs of progress

Despite significant improvement in attitudes to mental health issues, there is much more to be done

Charlie Taylor

Employers and managers often experience fear and frustration around not knowing what to say or how to support someone that they’ve noticed is struggling in the workplace

Employers and managers often experience fear and frustration around not knowing what to say or how to support someone that they’ve noticed is struggling in the workplace

 

While people have become more open about talking about mental health in recent years, it can still be something of a taboo topic in the workplace. A recent study by the British health insurer Bupa shows that prejudice against those experiencing emotional health problems is alive and well, with many businesses still not doing enough to tackle the issue.

According to the research, which was published last October, 94 per cent of UK business leaders surveyed admitted there is a prejudice in their organisation towards people with mental health issues.

Almost all said they are trying to encourage an open culture of discussion around mental health and yet as many as seven in 10 employees surveyed said they didn’t feel they could speak candidly about such issues or concerns.

Three-quarters of the business leaders surveyed by Bupa said they recognised that a mentally healthy workforce makes good business sense. However, many also admitted to labelling employees with mental health conditions as unpredictable, erratic and weak.

Moreover, almost half of respondents reported treading on eggshells around employees who have experienced a mental health condition, while one in five leaders said they avoided talking to them altogether.

For anyone thinking that the issue of mental health in the workplace is less of a concern here in Ireland than the UK, think again. A study conducted by the Association for Higher Education Access & Disability (Ahead) in 2010 found that two-thirds of Irish people surveyed would not disclose at work that they have mental health problems.

Fear of disclosure

The research showed that 78 per cent of employees believed there is a stigma around mental health issues in the workplace. Given that 35 per cent of survey respondents also said they would personally feel uncomfortable employing someone if they knew that person had mental health problems, it seems fears around disclosing emotional problems are not without grounds.

Although Ahead’s study is now somewhat dated, the organisation’s assistant director Mary Quirke, is unsure whether the situation has improved greatly in recent years.

“Recruiting people with mental health difficulties is often thought of as risky. However, it is worth stating that the same prejudices prevail in relation to other disabilities also,” said Ms Quirke, who manages the organisation’s Willing Able Mentoring (WAM) programme, which promotes access to the labour market for graduates with disabilities.

See Change, which works to reduce stigma around mental health, conducted its own survey of Irish attitudes on the topic in 2012. It found that 57 per cent of respondents believe that being open about a mental health problem at work would have a negative effect on job and career prospects, up from 48 per cent in 2010. Furthermore, 47 per cent said they believed that being open about a mental health problem at work would have a negative effect on a person’s relationship with colleagues, up from 36 per cent in 2010.

“We have seen increased fear and reluctance around disclosure, which we attribute to the increased workplace pressures and insecurity that came with recession,” said Sorcha Lowry, acting campaign manager at See Change.

The organisation is currently running a training programme with about 30 Irish workplaces to improve mental health awareness and understands it’s difficult for companies to address.

“What we hear from employers and managers is fear and frustration around not knowing what to say or how to support someone that they’ve noticed is struggling. The hardest thing is often not knowing how to deal with someone who, due to their own self-stigma, will never come to management and open up. When it is not named, it is much harder to put the right supports in place,” said Ms Lowry.

Tess Brady, project manager for the recently launched “My Mind at Work” initiative, which seeks to enhance staff resilience and emotional wellbeing, isn’t surprised to hear that prejudice against those experiencing mental health issues is still strong.

“Over the past 10 years, Ireland has undergone a huge change in attitude towards mental health. Thanks to advocacy by individuals and mental health organisations, we’re increasingly aware of the prevalence and the manifestation of mental health difficulties.

“Although the national conversation around mental health has begun to reduce stigma, the structures and supports aren’t necessarily there to support people who are looking for help. This is how the stigma endures. Without adequate mental health support both inside and outside of work, employees are reluctant to discuss any challenges they may be facing with their employer,” she said.

See Change says that while companies are still somewhat afraid of addressing the issue, some are beginning to focus on it and take steps to protect vulnerable employees.

In the past year, the organisation has run its stigma-reduction training programme for some well-known organisations, including Accenture, State Street, Bord na Móna, Mercer and MSD.

Among the successful local workplace initiatives See Change highlights is HP Ireland’s awareness week for staff called “Prescription for Happiness” and Deloitte Ireland’s “Mental Health Champions” programme.

Remarkable turnaround

Ms Lowry says that these companies and many others are keen to do more in the area.

“We’ve seen a remarkable turnaround in interest and commitment to employee mental health compared to when we initially began knocking on employers’ doors around 2010.

“The fear that existed around the issue was an enormous challenge. I don’t think this fear has lifted but it is now accompanied with a healthy recognition that individuals and organisations work better in open and supportive environments.

“Many of the organisations we work with have specific experience in dealing with employees in distress or on sick leave and this challenge prompts wider conversation.

“In our training sessions, the employers say the most liberating idea is that they cannot be expected to solve someone else’s problems but they should be able to support them in their role by simply asking how they can help. Some of the most successful collaborations we’ve seen in workplaces happen when the need is identified by the employees and middle managers themselves and they then ask us to team up with them to offer a solution for their senior management to consider,” Ms Lowry added.

My Mind, which also runs training programmes with organisations on mental health, said that multinationals tend to lead the way when it comes to focusing on the issue.

“In our experience with My Mind at Work, we have found that larger multinational companies are more attuned to problems such as workplace stress, and have more resources to put in place structures to support their employees. However, we know that similar issues are prevalent in workplaces of all sizes, and we believe that SMEs can really improve their operations by focusing on the issue,” said Ms Brady.

“It can be difficult for small companies to find the time and resources to invest in employee wellbeing, but I think the benefits of that investment for employee and employer alike are becoming increasingly clear,” she added.

No matter what size the organisation, companies have a responsibility to provide for the mental health needs of their staff. Moreover, it pays off to do so.

“So much energy and valuable time is wasted hiding something that can often be easily supported within an organisation. In 2008 the Mental Health Commission report The Economics of Mental Health Care in Ireland estimated the direct annual cost of poor mental health in Ireland at least €3 billion or 2 per cent of GNP. These costs include loss of potential labour supply, unemployment, absenteeism and reduced productivity in the workplace,” said Ms Lowry.

 

Previously published in The Irish Times.

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