Dealing with mental health in the workplace…

In a certain TV series that I watch religiously, the premise of the show revolves around the inner workings of the mind of a billionaire called Robert “Bobby” Axelrod who runs a hedge fund called Axe Capital (AxeCap). The show aptly named Billions has its focus on Bobby who besides having -started from the ground and come up hard, also chooses to show the goings-on of a certain group of people who are in and around Bobby’s life and business.

My two favourite characters in the show (outside of Bobby Axelrod and his nemesis-turned ally Chuck Rhoades) are the Fixer named Hall, who always pops up and does the extremely difficult stuff, thus being a Fixer; and Dr Wendy Rhoades who is Axe Cap’s Head of Human Resources who is a trained Medical Doctor cum psychiatrist whose role in the company encompasses listening to all staff like a sort of shrink and inadvertently steadies the proverbial mental ship if any of them feels as if they are out of control.

In one of many my discussions with Kim Kamarebe, the Principal at Damascus Capital, a finance and investment firm, we came up with the agreement that what Dr. Rhoades does is a form of mental coaching. If you watch any sports games consistently, you can pick out a coach who has had a huge impact on any a group of players. A case in point is a coach of an NBA basketball team I support called the San Antonio Spurs whos name is Greg Popovich. In his execution, he continuously brings out ways to improve both a player’s ability to perform on the court as well as off the court. It is believed that surgeons in the operating theatre are extremely gifted in their craft, but the better ones always convene a meeting after a successful or failed surgery and ask the team to point out ways to improve and generally do a better job. For someone who has just completed a possible 12-18 hour surgery for a heart bypass transplant, it is pretty humbling to ask what can be done better.

In other workplaces (think teachers, lecturers, bankers, builders, lawyers, accountants, economists and researchers) coaching of staff occurs in quite rudimentary ways. Potentially through annual reviews and regular technical evaluations that may usually work, but may not be as effective in selectively straining out certain staff who can become next level leaders or better yet assist those who are struggling with performance issues at work due to an unforeseen and hard to point out disease.

This brings me to the gist of my main write-up. “mental health issues in the workplace.”

What are mental health problems?

We all have times when we feel down, stressed or frightened. Most of the time those feelings pass, but sometimes they develop into a mental health problem like anxiety or depression, which can impact on our daily lives. For some people, mental health problems become complex, and require support and treatment for life.

Factors like poverty, genetics, childhood trauma, discrimination, or ongoing physical illness make it more likely that we will develop mental health problems, but mental health problems can happen to anybody.

In my discussion with Albert Elwa, who not only is a friend who was the poster-boy for being a bad boy when we were growing up, but has completed a full-circle recovery and shared with me that he has not had a drink since 2008. Albert currently runs Focus on Recovery (FORE- Recovery Uganda) an NGO set up by him and some colleagues who came together to help themselves and others who have suffered the brunt of various addictions.

Albert unabashedly shared with me that mental health issues in our country have always been dealt with at arm’s length and been viewed more as a moral issue than it being a real issue itself. Worst part is that they are always chronic in nature. Chronic meaning that it lasts more than 3 months and cannot easily be cured by medication, prevented by vaccines and generally do not just go away by themselves.

So let me ask you how you might feel towards a young man who yells, swears, threatens people, gets suspended from school/ work all the time, and presents multiple other odd behaviours. Not knowing anything about him, would you judge him and possibly ridicule his behaviours?  Many onlookers might view this young man as a “bad seed,” so to speak, and blame the behaviour on bad or neglectful parenting. Now what if I told you this young man had/ has a brain tumour that significantly impacts his ability to control his body and his emotions.  Would your opinion of him change?  If so, how?  What kind of thoughts and feelings would you have towards him and his parents?  After all, his actions are a direct result of a life-threatening, physical illness that is beyond his control. 

Now I want to give you a slightly different scenario.  What if I told you that instead of a tumour, this young boy has been diagnosed with a mood disorder, ADHD, anxiety, and also struggles with various sensory vulnerabilities?  How would your opinion differ finding out his illness is mental as opposed to physical?  What kind of thoughts and feelings would you have towards him and his parents now?  Be honest with yourself. Becoming aware of our thoughts and judgments is key to learning about something and understanding it better.

My thoughts differ in both scenarios because they ARE different.  I do not work in mental health and even though I may have experienced my own personal health challenges, my brain still, automatically sympathized more with the boy and his family in the first scenario.  However, when I stopped and thought about the second scenario in more depth, I felt increasing sympathy for the boy who doesn’t have the physical component to help people accept him, or at least better understand his behaviour.  Neither of these scenarios involves choice, yet one is far more likely to be accepted and sympathized with than the other. Just imagine this is your workmate who gives the impression that he is fine on a day to day basis, but always seems to be dealing with some stuff.

The fundamental question here is why does an illness have to have a physical component to be accepted?  I ask myself this question all the time.  It seems that the brain is the only organ in the body that is not fully accepted when it comes to illness

Illnesses involving the mind, that cannot be detected by medical tests and scans, continue to be stigmatized, leaving bystanders less understanding, less tolerant, and less accepting of the people who endure them. 

Many opinions regarding the second scenario would change for the worse and that the young man diagnosed with various mental health issues would be viewed as “crazy” and further ostracized from the chance of a happy existence.  It can take years to diagnose a mental illness accurately, and even then it is mostly based on observations, self-report, and response to medications and therapies.  Just because the evidence isn’t definitive, however, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. 

Mental health issues present by a person being apathetic, withdrawn, showing more defensive mechanisms than usual and their causes can be due to work pressures, divorce, alcoholism, financial stress and/or coping with all these issues.

How do I (you) recognise a mental health problem?

If we have significant challenges in our home or work life, the chances are that it has an impact on our mental health. Mental health problems can have a lot of different symptoms and signs. As a rule, you should seek help from a Doctor if you have difficult feelings that are:

  • stopping you from getting on with life
  • having a big impact on the people you live or work with
  • affecting your mood over several weeks
  • causing you to have thoughts of suicide

How can we safely manage mental health issues at work?

Albert said setting up a “Safe Space” for such cases at the workplace is a definite way of dealing with mental health issues in the workplace. Work is a major part of our lives and we spend a lot of our time. Sometimes life gets on top of us and it is important that we protect the work value by creating a space free of judgement and stigma when someone needs to open up and ask for help or just to be alone. Not having to apologise for what you are going through can help one become less afraid and more loved. This in turn allows the person/ people to process issues better and work towards change more freely. If Safe Spaces delay to become part of our workplaces, mental health issues always end up manifesting in some form of addiction. Albert said addictions include screens (phone, tvs), alcohol, food, sexual, gaming, pornography, and even work. Albert also issues of depression from anxiety and stress are clear highlights of mental health issues.

What is a safe space?

A safe or positive space is an environment where an individual (or group of people) can feel confident that they were will not exposed to violence, criticism, harassment and other forms of oppression. This space can be virtual (online) or even physical (actual room selected at work during certain times)

4 clear ways to slowly, but surely deal with mental health in the workplace

Pay attention to language. We all need to be aware of the words we use that can contribute to stigmatizing mental health issues: “Super OCD is at it again — organizing everything.” “She’s totally schizo today!” “He is being so bi-polar this week — one minute he’s up, the next he’s down.” We’ve heard comments like these, maybe even made them ourselves. But through the ears of a colleague who has a mental health challenge, they can sound like indictments. Would you open up about a disorder or tell your team leader you needed time to see a therapist after hearing these words?

Rethink “off days.” If you have cancer, no one says, “Let’s just push through” or “Can you learn to deal with it?” They recognize that it’s an illness and you’ll need to take time off to treat it. If you have the flu, your manager will tell you to go home and rest. But few people in the work place would react to emotional outbursts or other signs of stress, anxiety, or manic behaviour in the same way. We need to get more comfortable with the idea of suggesting and requesting days to focus on improving mental as well as physical health.

Encourage open and honest conversations. It’s important to create safe spaces for people to talk about their own challenges, past and present, without fear of being called “unstable” or passed up for the next big project or promotion. Employees shouldn’t fear that they will be judged or excluded if they open up in this way. Leaders can set the tone for this by sharing their own experiences, as we’ve done, or stories of other people who have struggled with mental health issues, gotten help and resumed successful careers.  They should also explicitly encourage everyone to speak up when feeling overwhelmed or in need.

Be proactive. Not all stress is bad, and people in high-pressure careers often grow accustomed to it or develop coping mechanisms.  However, prolonged unmanageable stress can contribute to worsening symptoms of mental illness. How can managers ensure their employees are finding the right balance? By offering access to programs, resources, and education on stress management and resilience-building. Employee burn-out is not a joke and employers are guilty of not doing enough to prevent or alleviate burnout. Companies need to do a better job of assisting employees connect to resources before stress leads to more serious problems.

Train people to notice and respond. Most offices keep a medical kit around in case someone needs a bandage or an aspirin. Programmes to help increase people’s ability to recognize the signs of someone who may be struggling with a mental health challenge and connect them to support resources are now not scary to initiate. Through role plays and other activities, they offer guidance in how to listen non-judgmentally, offer reassurance, and assess the risk of suicide or self-harm when, for example, a colleague is suffering a panic attack or reacting to a traumatic event. These can be difficult, emotionally charged conversations, and they can come at unexpected times, so it’s important to be ready for them.

All in all, the standoffish attitude about mental health is reducing and slowly being talked about more. Which in turn allows for less astigmatism about mental health and more willingness to engage in pro-active methods to assist in learning how to deal with it.

Edmund is the Principal Consultant and Co-Founder at BLEGSCOPE®, and has realised that more Business Owners need to understand issues about Mental Health in the workplace.

You can follow him on twitter at @edmokmg

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