Talking about our mental health is one of the last workplace taboos. But employers and employees benefit from recognising and supporting people who are struggling. Hannah Coogan reports
The stats are stark: one in four of us suffers from poor mental health every year. And in the last year, the coronavirus pandemic has put even more people’s mental health and wellbeing under even greater pressure.
Mental-health conditions cost UK employers up to £45 billion each year. But research from Deloitte shows that every £1 employers spend caring for employees generates a £5 return, cutting presenteeism, absenteeism and staff turnover.
I am not a mental-health expert. But I have managed mental-health challenges of my own for more than 25 years. By speaking out, I hope to encourage others to talk about their problems and to press employers to offer staff who are struggling the mental-health support they need.
It started when I was 13. I struggled to cope with my parents’ divorce. I was bullied at school because of my weight and everything felt out of control. Gradually I reduced my food intake until I was barely eating at all.
As anorexia controlled me, my weight plummeted dangerously. I was constantly hungry, tired and weak. From the age of 14, I spent two and a half years in and out of hospital, trapped in a cycle of partial recovery/relapse.
At 17 I reclaimed control. I needed to focus on staying well to look to the future. I was interested in the world around me and how it worked. I taught myself about environmental issues, such as global warming, and gained the A-levels I needed to study geography at university. I am proud to have maintained a healthy weight since 1998.
Anorexia is not about food; it is about control. During periods of uncertainty or stress, the same old need to control situations will resurface. My challenge will always be to manage this, recognise those feelings and to know when to seek help.
The big thing is taking time to reflect, to be kind to myself, to practise techniques I’ve learned that keep me well – above all, to recognise when to ask for help
We will remember the last year as the year of the pandemic. Covid-19 changed our world overnight, making it unsafe to catch a bus, go to work, meet colleagues and customers and hug – or even visit – our loved ones.
News stories sent my anxiety into overdrive; I had to switch them off. Months of juggling work and my daughter’s home schooling left me feeling overwhelmed. My mood plummeted. But I knew to ask those around me for support and now feel generally more positive – though some days are better than others.
My coping mechanisms include taking each day as it comes and focusing on what I can influence, not on the things beyond my control. I look for new things to focus on and keep time back for myself.
We cannot underestimate how crucial it is for employers to support employees’ mental health and wellbeing. Research from the Centre for Mental Health reveals that employers that ignore staff’s struggles with mental health also jeopardise their business’ success and productivity.
So what can employers do to help?
Good employers create a culture that makes people feel safe enough to discuss how they feel and to seek help in the workplace, with no fear of judgement or recrimination.
Mental health is complex. It’s okay for a manager not to know how to manage someone else’s struggles as long as systems exist to support and help those who need it to find specialist help. That could mean supporting employees to take time off for counselling or offering links to online support and self-help resources, see suggestions in box.
Some organisations are setting up mental-health first-aid networks and offering employees access to private, confidential counselling outside work.
If you are a manager, examine your internal processes and access to mental-health services to prepare yourself to help staff who need support. Above all, listen. Then, having offered your employee a choice of ways forward, help them to decide what offers them the best support path.
Don’t assume or jump to conclusions about what help someone else needs. What matters is to show that you are there to help your employee to find the support that works for them.
So after 25 years what have I learned? For me, the biggest thing is taking time to reflect, to be kind to myself, to practise techniques I’ve learned that keep me well – above all, to recognise when to ask for help.
If you are struggling too, I hope that sharing my story and the things I’ve learned will encourage you to recognise it and to seek the help you need. For now, here are my top tips:
Hannah Coogan FCIWEM is a JBA Consulting technical director, champion for equalities, diversity and inclusion and chair of CIWEM’s West Midlands branch
Good employers create a culture that makes people feel safe enough to discuss how they feel and to seek help in the workplace, with no fear of judgement or recrimination
HELP AND RESOURCES
DEPRESSION – SALLY’S STORY
Four years ago, I lost a job I’d pinned my hopes on; it was crushing, writes Sally*. Having changed careers, I felt I’d gambled and lost everything, that I’d never get another job again.
I felt too crushed to talk to family or friends and felt too embarrassed to ask former colleagues and business contacts for help. Depression felt like darkness, so thick and heavy I couldn’t breathe.
After three or four months crying on the sofa, I went to my GP. She was sympathetic, setting me a multiple-choice test to work out how severely depressed I was. Apart from hearing voices and suicidal thoughts, I ticked every box.
The immediate choice was antidepressants. That scared me; years earlier, medication tipped a close friend from depression to attempting suicide. Do note, this is not usual.
The other choice was cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which had long NHS waiting lists. But my GP found me a student counsellor at a nearby psychiatric hospital, who helped me – under lecturer supervision – to unpick my dark thoughts.
CBT teaches you to separate thoughts from facts, to challenge your own narratives. This reframes “everything is hopeless” as “I’m having the thought right now that everything is hopeless”. That might sound obvious, or basic. When you’re clinically depressed, it really isn’t.
It took three months of CBT to learn to manage my depression. I found another job and was recently promoted. But I still use what I’ve learned – reframing techniques, spending time outdoors, eating well – to manage my mental health.
You would never leave cancer or a fracture to heal itself. If you’re struggling with your mental health, recognise it. Then look for professional help.
*Names have been changed
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