“Are You Turning a Blind Eye?
Mental Health & Well-being in the Workplace
By Conor Kenny
Conor Kenny © All rights reserved 20119.
One in four of us will suffer a mental health problem in our lives.
In Ireland, with a population of just under 5 million, that’s 1.2 million people.
At work, a quarter of your company.
Yet, even today, many companies turn a blind eye for several reasons; fear, their own view of this, personal experience, taboos, ignorance or simply the desire to deny its existence and impact. Worse still the “Get on with it” culture of a bygone generation.
When we don’t understand something, we face 2 choices – learn it, ignore it. With 25% of the workforce at risk, it’s easy to know what a company, a leader or a HR director should do, the problem is getting them to do it.
As the cartoon goes;
Doctor: “He won’t admit he has a problem. In fact, he won’t even admit he’s here”
The term ‘mental health’ covers a vast ocean of challenges and what we think we know versus what we know are poles apart. When we talk mental health, we are often not aware of what this covers.
For example, we tend to separate terms like ‘addiction’ into different boxes. The same with substance abuse or gambling problems, neurosis, psychosis, fear, anxiety and on it goes. Quite often, it can be a chicken and egg question, which came first, the behaviour or the mental health issue? The reality is that anything that prevents good mental health has the ability to create poor mental health. Trauma, experience, upbringing, the list is endless, like you, I’m no expert in this field.
However, not being an expert is not a licence to abdicate. Many do, I have witnessed this first hand with leaders who simply sweep it under the carpet. It never fails to shock me, no matter how often I see it, hear it, or read a shallow note telling me why this isn’t important. It is. We are talking people. That’s you, me and everyone who matters to you. Everyone.
What Cost? Which Cost?
It’s almost a curious question. Perhaps how we interpreted it at first glance, in itself, tells a story? Did we mean money? Did we mean people’s lives? You choose.
How quickly we can rush for our calculator. The cost to the business, the cost per employee. The cost of planning and policy. The cost in productivity. Have we a budget.
The cost can be a life of suffering or worse, a lost life. The consequences can wreak havoc for a wider circle of family, children, relatives, friends, colleagues and even strangers. Its reach has many ripples.
Whilst 25% of us may suffer in our lifetime, the Health at a Glance report found that:
“Some 18.5 per cent of the Irish population was recorded as having a mental health disorder, such as anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, depression, or alcohol or drug use, in 2016”
Put it another way, in 2016, 1 in 5 Irish people were actively suffering.
There is an economic reality as a consequence of people at work suffering from anything from fear to stress, from addiction to burnout and from anxiety to phobias.
According to Paul Cullen’s article in The Irish Times: “Mental health problems cost the Irish economy over € 8.2 billion annually, according to a new OECD report”
What is Mental Health & Well-Being?
The obvious first answer is that it is confused. Confused about what it is, what it covers and what its impact is.
A simple answer is anything that affects your mood and these fall into 2 categories:
Psychosis & Neurosis:
Psychosis includes delusions, hallucinations and thought disorders.
Neurosis includes symptoms increased levels of emotions.
If you are in good mental health it means you can cope with the ups and downs of life. It means you are free to make the most of yourself, your goals, your ambition and your potential. It means you can enjoy and fully engage in life with family, friends, social and community circles and in your work.
Our ‘well-being’ or, our ‘emotional health’ is as important as our physical health, perhaps more important.
Good mental health is everyone’s business. Life constantly throws us into unexpected difficult situations that can leave us feeling down, stressed or scared. Most of the time those feelings pass. But sometimes they develop into a more serious problem and that can happen to any one of us at any time. Everyone can react differently to the same event. You may bounce back from a setback while someone else may feel paralysed by it for a long time. And our mental health doesn’t always stay the same. It can change as circumstances change and as you move through different stages of your life.
When we use the term ‘mental health’ it’s easy to see where misconceptions arise and there’s nothing worse than the amateur enthusiast who has become a self-professed expert in these matters.
A very useful short guide and introduction to what we mean by ‘mental health’ can be found on the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services website. They say:
“Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.
Over the course of your life, if you experience mental health problems, your thinking, mood, and behaviour could be affected. Many factors contribute to mental health problems, including:
• Biological factors, such as genes or brain chemistry
• Life experiences, such as trauma or abuse
• Family history of mental health problems
Mental health problems are common but help is available. People with mental health problems can get better and many recover completely”
Be Aware - Early Warning Signs
“Waiting is painful. Forgetting is painful. But not knowing which to do is the worst kind of suffering” - Paulo Coelho
If you are not sure if you, or someone you know, is living with mental health problems then a simple check is to see if they are experiencing one or more of the following early warning signs
• Eating or sleeping too much or too little
• Pulling away from people and usual activities
• Having low or no energy
• Feeling numb or like nothing matters
• Having unexplained aches and pains
• Feeling helpless or hopeless
• Smoking, drinking, or using drugs more than usual
• Feeling unusually confused, forgetful, on edge, angry, upset, worried, or scared
• Yelling or fighting with family and friends
• Experiencing severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships
• Having persistent thoughts and memories you can't get out of your head
• Hearing voices or believing things that are not true
• Thinking of harming yourself or others
• Inability to perform daily tasks like taking care of your kids or getting to work or school
Good Mental Health and Wellness
It’s very easy to focus on mental health challenges without thinking about the flip side or perhaps it should be the goal in the first place. Good or positive mental health has many benefits to the individual and to their circle. It allows people to:
• Realise their full potential
• Cope with the stresses of life
• Work productively
• Make meaningful contributions to their communities
• Be more resilient
• Keep perspective
How Do We Do That?
We do that in many ways. For example:
• Getting professional help if you need it
• Connecting with others
• Staying positive
• Getting physically active
• Helping others
• Getting enough sleep
• Developing coping skills
Recovery is absolutely possible and even probable. Here’s what a leading USA expert, Daniel Fisher, M.D., Ph.D. wrote;
“Research carried out at the National Empowerment Centre has shown that people can fully recover from even the most severe forms of mental illness. In-depth interviews of people diagnosed with schizophrenia have shown that these people are capable of regaining significant roles in society and of running their own lives. Though they have recovered from their mental illness they, as everyone, continue to heal emotionally. In most cases they no longer need medication and use holistic health and peer support to continue their healing. Our findings are consistent with long term studies carried out in this country by Dr. Courtenay Harding and colleagues, and in Europe by Dr. Manfred Bleuler and Dr. Luc Ciompi. In addition, cross cultural and historical studies indicate that chronic mental illness is a recent phenomenon of Westernized countries. In spite of all this evidence, most people in this country still believe that when a person has been labelled with mental illness they can never fully recover” In fact, they can.
The challenge we all face is how to integrate after loss or conflict and return to a greater wholeness of self. Being trapped by our own inner conflicts and thoughts is silent torture. Unlike someone on crutches, it’s a violent pain that we often cannot see in others. But even the worst experience of any mental health episode has a long term upside;
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved” - Helen Keller
In your business, mental health and what you do about it is ultimately your choice. In fact, it comes down to 3 questions only:
- What value do I put on the welfare of my people?
- What is the right thing to do for my people?
- Will I turn a blind eye?
And maybe revisit the title of this article just one more time?
Feel Free and Finally
“You are free to make whatever choice you want, but you are not free from the consequences of the choice” – Anonymous
If you value your people, make sure your legacy supports the easy words.
We won’t remember what you said, we will remember how you made us feel.
Conor Kenny is the Principal of Conor Kenny & Associates, a professional development, training and direct consultancy company, (Best Professional development Consultancy 2018 – Irish Enterprise Awards) specialising in developing your people, performance and business.
He is the author of 3 books
It’s Who I Am (2017) – Irish Times Best Business Books of the Year.
Dancing at the Fountain (2016) – Irish Examiner Best Business Books of the Year.
Sales Tales (2014)