How are you really feeling?

We all have mental health, just like we have physical health.  Sometimes it is good, we feel happy, loved, valued and life is pretty good.  Sometimes it is poor – we feel depressed, isolated or worse. Life feels a mess – just like in the picture. This week is Mental Health Awareness Week (#MentalHealthAwarenessWeek), so how does the workplace affect our mental health and how we can help those suffering?

Most of us manage to cope with the low times most of the time, we know that things will get better and that the occasional blue day helps us appreciate the good days.

But sometimes, something happens and we can’t bounce back.  It could be relationship problems, job issues, physical health or mental illness. And that is where things get difficult.  In 2015 32% of homeless people reported having a mental illness and their rates of depression are 10 times higher.

Despite the media spotlight on mental health, it is still the poor relation to our physical health.  If we break a bone or develop a disease, we don’t think twice about going to hospital or popping to the Doctor.  But still people are wary of admitting they are finding it hard to cope.  They fear they could face discrimination.

This is where the workplace plays such a fundamental role in people’s all round wellbeing.  Last year, 17 million working days were lost due to stress, costing the UK economy £2.4 billion.  A TUC study https://www.tuc.org.uk/workplace-issues/health-and-safety/stress  noted that 70% of their members cited stress as a major issue with someone becomes ill due to stress every 2 minutes.

It is not the stress in itself that is to blame.  That is a normal human reaction and normally we can recover and not be adversely affected.  However, where it is relentless and unrecognised it can lead to disrupted sleep, changes to appetite, strains on relationships, physical and mental illness.

The stress may not be caused by factors in the workplace, but it will affect individual ability to work efficiently and effectively.  Individuals are likely to suffer reduced decision making abilities, lack of concentration, lower productivity, breakdown in relationships with colleagues, withdrawing from their work and ultimately a costly absence.

Therefore, it is essential that all employers and managers learn to recognise stress and low mood, and support the sufferer appropriately.

Good team relationships can help in an early diagnosis – if you know your team well, you will be able to spot an issue before it becomes a problem.  Managers who spend time with their team regularly can spot issues before they become problems.  Early intervention can reduce the severity and potentially avoid stress related absence.  ‘How are you really feeling?’ is a good opener, and ‘Fine’ not an adequate response!

Openness and honesty are essential – if your team feel they can talk about their problems without being judged or discriminated against, then they are more likely to let you know if they are struggling so you can make adjustments.  Talking is often the best remedy to stress and depression, and it may be that being  able to open up to you will help them cope.

Ensure your workplace does not add to the problem.

          Set a good example from the top downwards in your work/life balance.  If your team see you at your desk from dawn till dusk, they may feel pressured to follow suit. 

          If you constantly take work home with you, this is likely to raise false expectations of how much work your team can achieve in a normal work day.  Make sure you take regular breaks – if your team see you enjoying a lunchtime stroll, they will feel empowered to follow suit.

          Provide support for your team if they are suffering poor mental health – if they are off sick, keep in touch and invite them in for regular catch ups or to social events.  If they are stuck at home, their feelings of isolation and low self worth may escalate.  By keeping in contact, you are helping them feel they are still an integral part of the team, and if they can come to the workplace, it may help break down any fear of returning to the workplace.  Stress is not an infectious disease; the sufferer’s emotional health just needs a bit of a break.

          Declutter your workplace as far as possible.  Piles of old paperwork gathering dust in the corner can add to people’s stress – they never feel as though their work is done.  A clear desk policy can create feelings of achievement and being in control.

          Read my previous blogs looking at the design of the workplace – your surroundings can have a huge effect on your mood.

This is not just your mental health that is at stake, this is your team’s mental health.

Sufferers of stress and depression can recover and resume normal life if they receive the right support.  Sometimes though, these feelings escalate and lead to severe mental illness, substance abuse, homelessness and suicide.  We all need to put in place safety nets to ensure that those around us don’t fall through the cracks.

As a business, you have a responsibility to look after your employees, not just morally, but also financially – have you looked at how much sick pay is costing your business?  Do you review what are the causes of sickness absence?  If you do, and stress or depression feature highly on the list, then you need to take urgent action to reduce stress levels in the workplace and improve support.

Your workforce is your most valuable asset.  You must look after their physical and emotional health.  What can you do during Mental Health Awareness Week to look after the health of your employees?

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