Mental Health is NOT a dirty word: Destigmatizing mental health and creating open conversations is the way forward

Mental Health. These two words can, in themselves, bring very different reactions. Some people see it as a pure descriptor. Something that tells us we are talking about health that is specific to our mind. These people see this combination of words and neither good nor bad. They see them just as it is.

On the other hand, most people see mental health as a bad thing. When they hear or see the two words, side by side, they think illness. When people think illness in relation to the words mental health, particularly if they do not understand them they think the worst.

In a recent survey of employers in Canada, they were asked two clear questions about employing people with mental ‘ill’ health.  The first question asked them:

‘If they had a staff member or someone in their team come to tell them they were suffering from a mental illness of some kind, would they support them in continuing in employment?’

Scarily only 60% of those surveyed said yes they would. It is not scary because 60% said yes; it is scary because 40% said no without knowing any other information than what was in front of them.

The next question was:

‘If someone you were interviewing for a job disclosed that they had a mental illness, would you still consider them for the role?’

90% of those surveyed said NO. They indicated, once again without any extra information, that they would not employ them.

In most countries around the world, the people in this survey will have breached labour laws if they discriminate against either party based on the mental illness alone. However, this would not have stopped them. Most people in a position of employing those with mental health disorders or long-term illnesses see them as a liability. They see it as a safety risk to the person in question and other staff. They see it as something, which would make someone less able to do their job. This is because of the misunderstanding about mental health, and how it really affects people and those around them.

If we seem to be getting away with treating a portion of the population as lacking the skills to do the job due to the state of their mental health, why is it so important that we address it?

We need to address because it is not true.

There are three (3) key things we need to remember as a business owner or as people who may be potentially hiring new staff:

  • Anyone can suffer from mental ‘ill’ health
  • It is important to understand how to help our employees and ourselves
  • Mental ‘ill’ health will only affect your bottom line if you fail to be open about it

Anyone can suffer from mental ‘ill’ health:

“Mental illness is an equal opportunity illness. Every one of us is impacted by mental illness. One in five adults is dealing with this illness, and many are not seeking help because the stigma prevents that.” – Margaret Larson was a smart woman.

We often have the misconception in business, whether we are running it or someone working in a business, that in order to show we can do the job at hand we must not show that we are strong but also be stoic. We cannot seriously complain about the hours, if anything, we wear the long hours as a badge of honour, as do, feeling exhausted. We cut our lunch breaks short and taking on more work than we care to admit we can handle.

All of this is done as a way to show that we have what it takes to be successful. This is how we show we can handle the stress of the role we have or even running the whole business. We have the idea that mental illness is the domain of the weak and therefore, and most importantly in all this, it will not happen to us. This could not be further from the truth if we tried.

Mental ‘ill’ health is an equal opportunity ‘disease’. It does not discriminate. If anything, often, it is those that are perceived as being strong that are most likely to suffer from a mental health disorder or end up with mental ‘ill’ health in the long run.

Since one in four people are likely to suffer from a mental illness in their lifetime it is a fairly high chance that in anyone business that has four or more people in it, at least one of them will have had to deal with mental ‘ill’ health at some time in their life.

A survey conducted in the UK, in 2016 by the Mental Health Association, found that only a mere 13% of employees feel that they have good mental health. That screams even louder than our early statistics and it tells us that we seriously need to work on. This does not mean that they are having nervous breakdowns and becoming totally non-functional within the business but it does show how close many of us may be at any given time.

I remember watching the stress that running a business inflicted on my parents, especially my mother, as a young girl. The impression I took away, which incidentally took me many years to overcome, was that running your own business was not a good idea. I do not agree with this anymore, however, there is still a part of me that is imprinted by that.  This is not just something that affects us or those who we work with. It can affect our families and in particular, the young and impressionable children in a very negative way.

It is important to understand how to help our employees and ourselves

What can we do in our businesses to make a difference? We need to start by implementing a culture of openness around mental health, which comes from the top. One that is fully supported from the top, through action, not just signing and ticking a box.

Recently, I was at an event on de-stigmatizing mental health in the workplace, one of the keynote speakers at the event had previously worked in a high-level executive position with a large multinational organization. He spoke openly about how one day he dropped so severely into depression, that he had to ring his immediate bosses – you know the guys right at the top – and tell them he couldn’t make it in and why. He tells this story because he was supported; he held onto his position and even went on to make partner level. He tells the story because even he has to admit, that when the surface is scratched in his organization most people do not know what the protocols are if they are suffering from mental ‘ill’ health. They do not feel the organisation is supportive – even though he is the living proof that it is. This is because the policy is not as open as they think it is.

If you really want to create a business that is open to talking about mental ‘ill’ health and supporting it like any physical ‘ill’ health, the employees may suffer from them as mentioned it needs to come from the top.

You need to let employees know what the policy is on mental health. Do not just bury it in a diversity policy; make sure you have a separate mental health policy. Even if you are a small business now, put it in place before it is too late. If you currently work alone, implement it with yourself by giving yourself permission to have short and regular mental health breaks.

Make sure mental health first-aiders are trained up, properly within your workplace to be able to recognize what are the signs of mental ‘ill’ health could look like (versus general personality traits or just having a bad day!).

Make sure the employees know whom they can seek out to talk to about mental health issues. You need to ensure that these people are those who might be willing to talk openly about the issues they may have had in the past and why they think it is important to look after mental health. Also, ensure that they are the ones that others will trust with their stories.

Employees also need to know they are not going to find them in a position where excuses are found to remove them from the workplace if they confide.

Mental ‘ill’ health will only affect your bottom line if you fail to be open about it

After a talk I gave to a room full of business men and women in London, I had one person come up and share with me about how they nearly lost a £3 million a year turnover business all because they had missed the signs of mental ‘ill’ health in a key player in their business. Their Chief Financial Officer (CFO). This person was the financial glue in the business and if they had not finally caught it, the business would have folded at a point where it was growing. However, because mental ‘ill’ health was caught in the end, even though it was later than expected, the business merely suffered a hiccup in its overall growth.

In the UK, £1033 a year per employee is being lost by businesses due to mental ‘ill’ health according to a 2016 governmental report. This is being lost in sick days and a decrease in productivity specifically due to mental ‘ill’ health. We can stop this leak by ensuring we take away the feeling of stigma, which is associated with mental health. If people had a sense of job security and understood that they would be supported and aided in their journey back to good mental health, or in some cases successfully managed mental health, then they would be more likely to speak up and less likely to hide it and make themselves more ill.

As May is World Mental Health Awareness Month, it is a good time to take the first step openly and make your business a place of support and openness when it comes to mental health.