Mental health: We all have it, and that's OK
Reversing decades of misunderstanding is a huge task, but breaking the taboo of mental health in the workplace is not impossible, advises Sarah Winship
Mental health has received significant press attention in recent months with high-profile campaigns lending much-needed support to the battle to end the stigma that surrounds it. Employers are facing increasing pressure to take steps to re-educate their workforce and encourage a safe environment in which mental health can be discussed honestly and openly. To reverse decades of learnt behaviour and misunderstanding is a huge task, but with carefully thought out steps and a sensitive approach, businesses can make huge advancements in breaking the taboo around mental health.
In many ways it is up to us as individuals to maintain our mental health in a similar way that we maintain our physical health. As an employer it is our responsibility to assist staff in the upkeep of their mental health in the same way we promote physical wellbeing through employee benefits and incentives.
Mental health needs to be a priority in the workplace, in the same way physical health has been in recent years. Following an in-depth employee survey, mental health was identified as a key priority for our staff at Shoosmiths. In our drive to ensure our working environment allows all employees to thrive and achieve their potential, we made a clear commitment to tackling the stigma surrounding mental health by signing the ‘Time to Change’ pledge. The anti-discrimination initiative, founded by mental health charity Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, works to change the perception of mental health and as part of the pledge businesses must develop firm-wide action plans to address mental health issues.
How can we tackle this?
Ultimately, we need to change the discourse we use when talking about mental health. By creating an environment in which people can talk freely, confident that there will be no repercussions or perceptions of weakness, people will be able to express concerns or worries before they escalate into bigger issues that require medical intervention. This in turn makes the employer aware of particular contributory factors or triggers and provides them with the opportunity to take measures to reduce the employee’s exposure to these where possible.
With a large debt recovery practice, Shoosmiths already provides the staff within the Recoveries Services Group (RSG) with comprehensive and consistent training on identifying vulnerable clients and encouraging disclosure if they have concerns for the client’s mental health and safety. Equally, we support our RSG staff in dealing with the impact on their own mental wellbeing as a result of the often intense and emotional conversations they carry out on a daily basis. By equipping staff with knowledge of mental health we are enabling them to identify areas of concern in their own mental health and seek help before it escalates.
We have also run training sessions that focus on raising general awareness as well as the language we use when discussing mental health. We are all guilty of using language that trivialises mental health in our day to day conversations: ‘Today has been mental’, ‘I’m so depressed it’s Monday’, referring to ordered and tidy behaviour as ‘OCD’. Using this language in jest and with negative connotations can have unintended consequences that many of us never consider.
We are potentially compromising the sincerity of mental health initiatives and perpetuating the belief held by some that to have mental health issues is a weakness. By encouraging staff to take a moment to think about the consequences of words they have historically seen as harmless will significantly help to break the stereotypes that prevent people from speaking out about their mental health battles. Training has also targeted those who regularly manage mental health in the workplace, with an emphasis on maintaining positive mental health.
Directly involving staff is critical in making significant, long-lasting changes to attitudes towards mental health. Here at Shoosmiths we are appointing Mental Health Champions in each of our offices. These volunteers will support the firm’s wider diversity and wellbeing strategy by instigating initiatives to improve wellbeing among fellow employees and sign-posting individuals to relevant information and help outlets.
Changing the stigma that has been entrenched into our understanding over generations is not a quick or simple task. It takes commitment from the most senior levels, consistency in messaging, and recognition that everyone has a part to play to create a workplace that empowers individuals to think about and discuss mental health in a positive way.
SarahWinship is diversity, inclusion, and wellbeing manager at Shoosmiths