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Mental health in the workplace

August 1, 2017

There have been great leaps forward in our understanding of the need for good mental health. Most of us now understand that undue stress is bad and can be a trigger for many mental illnesses including anxiety and depression. We recognise the social cost, the broken relationships, the hardships and toll on families and workplaces. Yet many of us see it as something that happens to other people, glossing over the advice and warning signs.

I cut my business teeth in the mid-eighties – in Gordon Gecko boom times when a “stress is good” culture prevailed and I bought into it. If you were not stressed, you were not working hard enough or didn’t want “it” enough.

I paid a price for that in the following decades.

Everyone is susceptible (and arguably those that believe themselves immune are the most likely) to stress-related illness. Some people may have a higher threshold or more distant tipping point but anyone subjected to sustained, negative stress, even at lower intensity, will suffer – maybe not immediately but over time it will come into play.

This lower intensity, sustained stress can mean individuals are pushed beyond their tipping point; what starts as stress can quickly become anxiety leading to panic attacks, inability to think straight, sleeplessness and a myriad of other symptoms which hamper your abilities at work, within the family and socially and can ultimately lead to depression and isolation.

Of course some stress is unavoidable and many would suggest they work better under a degree of pressure; undue stress may not necessarily come from the employer; it could be a consequence of a demanding client, a domestic issue, problems with suppliers or from the individual expecting too much of themselves. Where the employer has a responsibility is in being tuned to the potential for stress to move into that sustained, lower level excessive stress.

C5 Alliance ran the Guernsey MIND ‘Managing Mental Wellbeing in the Workplace’ sessions across Guernsey and Jersey for our staff last year. We intend to run another in Guernsey this year. It has made us more aware of what is going on in the office and how to spot some of the signs. We encourage staff to take an interest in what is going on with our colleagues and being open if someone wants to talk. It has made a substantial difference and I’d encourage other firms to do the same.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying we are perfect at this. We certainly have a pressured environment at times and we are feeling our way as to what the answers are. We have had some success in spotting early signs of excessive stress and intervened. The solutions are as individual as the people involved – it could be extra holiday, working from home, a social night out or it may require professional help, which we wholly support. The aim is to foster a culture of care where there is no fear of ramifications if someone isn’t coping, whether that be due to home life, work life or external factors. Our aim is a happy, healthy workforce.

What’s key is encouraging people to talk about it. Workplaces should have defined pathways for recognising and supporting anyone vulnerable and ensuring staff are trained in how to spot an issue before it becomes a threat to the individual’s wellbeing and the business. Early intervention is so important.

We need to equip managers and staff to deal with mental health issues as well as continuing to remove the stigma associated with talking about mental health and wellbeing. Stress is unavoidable in life but each of us is responsible for minimising its impact on ourselves and our colleagues.

So, let’s forget the idea that it could not happen to “me”; it could and does.