In recent years, society has made great strides in discussing mental health, with Mental Health Awareness Week serving as a testament to this progress. We’ve been researching mental health for years now, and not only has the nature of the conversations we have changed – the very ability of our respondents to have that conversation has progressed massively; and the pandemic further accelerated that change.
This is reflected in the workplace too. There is now a greater level of comfort and openness in sharing personal experiences of mental health with colleagues and peers. While this increased dialogue is commendable, it is essential to move beyond the 'acceptable' forms of mental health issues in the workplace.
The dominance of anxiety in mental health conversations
Conversations surrounding anxiety, burnout, low mood, and neurodiversity have become more commonplace in the workplace. In part, this is perhaps due to how relatable the sensation of (at least mild) anxiety is, and its association with some positive characteristics in an employee (a sense of care, and urgency). Blogs and LinkedIn posts dedicated to the need for a safe space to address these experiences have contributed to breaking down stigmas associated with these conditions. This progress has encouraged individuals to bring their "whole selves" to work. However, it is important to question whether this focus on anxiety truly represents the wide range of mental health issues experienced by our colleagues and friends, and what harm may be caused by neglecting other mental health experiences.
The prevalence of other mental health conditions
While anxiety has gained significant attention, other mental health conditions and experiences, such as psychosis, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder (BPD), dissociative conditions, eating disorders, and clinical depression, remain in the shadows of the mental health conversation. For example, depression, despite its high prevalence, receives less focus than anxiety. This disparity can be attributed to the fact that depression, with its various forms and severity levels, is often accompanied by persistent feelings of sadness, despondency, and decreased motivation. Speaking up about depression in the workplace can be challenging due to the associated taboos and the fear of being perceived as less capable or valuable as an employee.
The uncomfortable realities of taboo mental health conditions
When considering mental health issues such as BPD, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and PTSD, it’s clear that the symptoms and experiences associated with these conditions would be even more stigmatized in the workplace. The discomfort experienced by individuals facing these conditions makes it incredibly challenging to share their experiences with their employers and colleagues. The lack of education, training, and support available for these conditions only compounds the problem, likely leaving sufferers reluctant to seek help or share their struggles. For any of us without experience of those conditions, we have to ask ourselves: How safe might we feel sharing this experience with our employer and colleagues given the current level of awareness and support?
Breaking stigma and fostering support
To create a safe environment where individuals feel comfortable seeking support or sharing their mental health experiences, we must address the stigma surrounding these conditions and the potential risks individuals face. Shocking statistics reveal that 88% of people with severe mental illness experience stigma, and 15% of employees still face dismissal or demotion after disclosing their mental health problems to their employers. It is evident that mere awareness is not enough; we need to establish systems that provide comprehensive support for colleagues and employees suffering from mental health issues, regardless of their form or severity.
Moving towards a more inclusive workplace
While it is not the workplace's responsibility to cure mental health issues or provide full support, it is where we spend 55% of our lives. Thus, it is imperative to break taboos, educate ourselves and our colleagues about mental health, and create inclusive and supportive environments. Encouraging flexibility through practices like agile working is a positive step, but it is only the beginning. To truly embrace the concept of bringing one's whole self to work, we must expand our understanding of mental health and be prepared to address and support the full spectrum of experiences.