Talking openly about mental health issues at work

Posted by: NHS Horizons - Posted on:

Originally published by Leigh Kendall – 16th May 2018

Mental ill health sadly remains a taboo topic socially and in our workplaces. This means that we are less likely to talk openly about it than we might about a physical illness, for example. 

The shame of this approach is that people experiencing mental health challenges of whatever kind too often are left to suffer in silence. They may also find work challenging.

This doesn’t have to be the case. I live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I was diagnosed four years ago, and for a period of time experienced a lot of time away from work. I have now been in work for nearly two years, with only a few minor blips. An extensive course of therapy (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing – EMDR) helped, as has a range of strategies at work.

I was fortunate to find out about Remploy by chance. Remploy is an organisation that offers a free personalised support service to individuals struggling because of stress, anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions. Individuals can receive personalised workplace support from an experienced mental health practitioner for a period of six months.

After I referred myself to the service, I received a visit to my home by my practitioner. We talked about my condition, including my needs, and what I felt able to do. Crucially, we discussed a range of strategies to help me feel able to cope, and to remain in work, and I received a written record of our conversation. I was able to phone or email my practitioner with any questions or for additional support, too.

My practitioner also contacted my line manager – with my permission (all your details are kept strictly confidential) to discuss potential strategies so she could best support me.

The most helpful strategy is a daily email to my line manager saying how I am feeling that day. Most days, I say I am feeling fine; the benefit of the email is on days when I am feeling anything less than fine I can feel free to say so. This enables my line manager and me to have a conversation about how I am feeling, and how that might impact on the work and other responsibilities that I have on.

Of course, such a strategy only works if the individual and their line manager have a good relationship, and feel able to be open and honest with one another. 

My line manager is never judgemental, and always takes an asset-based approach to my needs – that is, to focus on what I can do, what I feel able to do, and what she and the team can support me to do.

We have also completed a stress risk assessment, detailing some of the likely challenges I will come across in my working life, and how we can manage them if the situations arise. 

The ability to be open and honest about my condition and my needs helps me to remain in work – and the investment in time and effort is therefore worthwhile for my team.

The spectrum of mental health conditions and needs is huge. Every individual is different, and every individual has different needs. This means that the approach that suits me and my line manager may not suit everyone – it does however show what is possible. From my own experience I can also highly recommend Remploy for anyone who feels they may benefit from the service.

Many organisations offer a safe space to have conversations about mental health – mental health first aiders for example. Please don’t suffer in silence.

By talking openly about our mental health we can support ourselves, and one another. Talking openly also helps us to know that we are not alone, to create strategies to manage our working and even more importantly our personal lives. Let’s help break the stigma. 

We want to help change perceptions of mental health in the workplace and know that managing stress can be a challenge for individuals and their employers, as well as other conditions such as depression. Increasing demand for this support alongside our free webinars for employers demonstrates how important workplace mental health support is.…