Mental health: from awareness to action

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Image by Shift and Sheriff from Pixabay
Image by Shift and Sheriff from Pixabay

Guest author Felicity Haslehurst welcomes the new willingness to talk about mental health in the workplace.

Awareness around mental illness is at an all-time high. The recent Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK and the equivalent awareness month in the US, which is still ongoing, have both done a sterling job once again of putting this important issue firmly on our radars.

What has also been pleasing to see increasingly in recent years during these awareness periods, and particularly this year, is a torrent of proactive and lively conversation around mental health. Be it debate, discussion, news or support – we are talking more about mental health. And it’s a welcome development.

Perhaps the reason for this is the fact that, as a topic, mental health has become more mainstream. Take Burger King’s Mental Health Awareness Month ‘Unhappy Meals’ campaign. It was criticised and praised in fairly equal measure – but let’s be clear that it was a campaign about achieving more than just awareness. Is releasing a range of burgers for when people are feeling ‘pissed’ or ‘salty’ resolving anyone’s mental health problems? No. Was the campaign executed ideally. Probably not. But, by opening themselves up to ridicule and criticism, as well as praise, for its campaign, the clever people at Burger King leveraged its massive reach and brand power not only to raise awareness, but to start a conversation. And, in my opinion, that’s the ticket.

This I can say first hand. As a sufferer of depression and anxiety for the majority of my adult life, I can honestly say that all of the awareness in the world is worth nothing if you are met by a wall of awkward silence when you actually articulate the challenges you are facing as a result of your illness. And this is especially true in the workplace.

Anyone who, like me, has had to have an extended period of absence from work for mental illness will know just how much worse it makes you feel at first to do so. Guilt, with a side helping of feeling a failure, topped off with lashings of self-loathing is not conducive to rest and recuperation. And all of the workplace ‘awareness’ box ticking in the world won’t help with these feelings. Neither will copious amounts of paid leave. Nor expensive counselling programmes.

What will make all the difference in the world to your ability to recover is the willingness of your boss, your line manager, and your colleagues to have a human conversation with you about your needs.

I became unwell in September 2018. And when I say this, what I mean is that this was the month that my existing anxiety and depression started to prevent me from being functional. Already unable to eat, sleep, concentrate, or even find the energy to get out of bed some days, I accepted after a significant period of denial that I simply wasn’t fit to work.

The conversation I had with my boss the day I made that decision is one I will never forget. Having known me for a matter of months, she simply listened to me (for the best part of 30 minutes, missing another meeting she had scheduled) as I sobbed my way through apologies and explanations as to why I felt I needed to take some time off. After all this, she simply said: “You are very ill. What you need to do is turn your computer off, do whatever you need to do to get better, and not turn your computer back on again or give work a second thought until you are well enough to come back.”

She said these words as if they were obvious, but you simply can’t imagine the sheer amount of weight that my boss lifted from me in that phone call. Not only had she allowed me to talk about all of my fears around my illness and how it would impact my position at work, and reassured me, she had also taken that guilt-laden decision of whether to take time off work away from me simply by telling me to do it.

Five weeks later, I was back at work. Whilst I had been absent my line manager had kept in contact purely to discuss how I was doing (not to enquire when I was coming back, or to just ask me to forward on that email, or to remind her of the last conversation I had with that client), and just this act of conversation throughout my absence made it so much easier to come back. There was no cover up – my colleagues knew I had been absent because of mental illness, and were able to support my needs openly over the first few weeks of my return to work as a result. There was no ‘taboo’, or “don’t mention the ‘D’ word”.

In my case it was the attitude of my company on a very human-to-human level that allowed me to recover, and to make a successful return to work. For this I was very fortunate. Many people struggle to come back to work after a long term absence for mental illness.

So, employers, yes be aware. Yes, have in place mental health policies and initiatives where you can. But, in my experience, it is your conversations, your compassion and your kindness that are key. Because whilst awareness is undoubtedly the first step, it’s certainly not the last.