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We need to talk: Mental ill-health, and covering in the workplace – the business impacts

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend Changeboard’s Future Talent Conference 2018 with the headline “’Skills’ to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution” courtesy of the team at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) at the end of March. It was most definitely one of the best such conferences I’ve been to in this area with an engaging agenda, and knowledgeable speakers.

One of the points that was made that really resonated was the stigma that is attached to discussions on mental health – and how that stigma is carried so simply in the language that’s used.

Alastair Campbell, who has personal insights into this topic and is an advocate for positive change in this area, made that point really clearly. For example, in a discussion about “physical health” the images that are typically conjured up are invariably positive – Olympics athletes say, or those achieving significant physical accomplishments such as mountaineering.  When discussion “mental health” however, typically the sentiment is around mental health conditions and those who are evidently suffering, it’s the negative that’s thought about, not the positive.

Alastair was advocating that we should use the term “mental ill-health” if that’s what we actually mean; I’ve been seeking to take that approach ever since.

It’s a reminder of the way that every-day language can cause stigma and stereotypes to be perpetuated, and how harmful that can be. Creating workplace and social environments where we can discuss mental health, as well as mental ill-health, openly and pragmatically has to be a good thing.

A definition may help. Mindful Employer use the following: “The definition of mental ill-health covers a very wide spectrum, from the worries and grief we all experience as part of everyday life to the most bleak, suicidal depression or complete loss of touch with everyday reality. The cause may not necessarily be work-related.” and “Everybody responds differently to the stresses and strains of modern life and it is common to describe ourselves as ‘depressed’, ‘stressed’ or ‘anxious’ at times. For some, these feelings can become serious enough to make it difficult to carry on with normal daily activities”.

Of course a big part of mental ill-health is that there remains the option for many to not discuss it, to not raise concerns, to not ask for help and understanding. The emergence of mental-health first aiders in the workplace is a great intervention.

That ability to hide the truth is one that corporates really should worry about as the impacts are significant, and not just from the obvious employee wellbeing perspective.

Mental ill-health is a significant cost for corporates and national economies. One estimate places this cost at £35bn per year for employers in the UK alone, and in USA an estimated $193bn in lost earnings, and approximately 1 in 5 adults experiencing mental illness in a given year.

Mercer and Business in the Community (BITC) recently reported that a third of employees (31%) in the UK were formally diagnosed with a common mental health disorder, such as stress, anxiety or depression. With the Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey showing depressed employees lose an average of 33 productive days per year to moderate to severe depression by the 5.6% of employees who suffer from it. This is about people’s lives, and real corporate money too.

That ability to hide of course extends to many other areas. LGBT+ people who do not feel safe coming out in the workplace, those who hold religious beliefs who are not sure how their colleagues will respond, or someone with a non-visible disability. I’ve even heard of an expectant mother who didn’t tell her employer that she was pregnant until as late as possible for fear of how she would be negatively treated, and another mother who avoids talking about her children at work in case people decide on her behalf what types of projects and jobs she could work on.

Deloitte released their “Uncovering talent – a new model of inclusion” paper in 2013 which showed the alarming number of people who cover parts of their identity when at work. And that covering takes energy, it causes people to be less connected with their colleagues, and it inevitably impacts on performance and the sense of belonging.

It is undoubtedly in an employer’s interest to ensure that the corporate culture is one that allows these conversations to be had in a context of psychological safety. And, of course, this touches on different aspects of people’s lives, in many cultures for example, emotional wellbeing is closely associated with religious or spiritual life.

Importantly this isn’t just about having non-discrimination policies in place, though they are undoubtedly an important foundation. It’s about the way that people within the company talk about these topics, and the way that they respond as individuals and when representing the company when they are being discussed.

So, here are a few questions for you: Does your company hide behind “we have policies for these topics so this isn’t a problem”, or does it seriously consider how the right values and behaviors are exemplified and recognized by leaders? Does it work on how inappropriate language should be challenged, and how stereotypes and stigma are eradicated so that the corporate culture is one that is authentically inclusive? What images come to mind in your company when people talk about mental health, or religion, or being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender? Are they positive?

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