With the number of those suffering mental health issues on the rise, why does it remain such a taboo subject in the workplace?
Still a difficult subject at work
For so many people experiencing mental health challenges, concerns regarding the stigma linked to such conditions can affect how they relate to others. These fears and concerns are not just limited to social interactions – they can affect all aspects of life, including an individual’s workplace.
At work, colleagues’ and employers’ potential adverse reactions may make those struggling with a mental health condition unable to open up about their experiences. This is not a small problem to be ignored or overlooked – it is claimed that 95% of employees calling in sick with stress give a different reason for needing time off.
However, there have been some moves to tackle the problem in the UK. Mental health discrimination initiative Time to Change has formulated an employer pledge through which companies can demonstrate their “commitment to change how we think and act about mental health in the workplace, and ensure that employees facing these problems feel supported.”
At the time of writing, 865 organizations have pledged. It’s encouraging to see so many companies taking the issue seriously. That said, this pledge does not go far enough. In seeking to challenge the stigma in the workplace, it is easy to think that creating an atmosphere that encourages openly talking about mental health will help to address the issue.
It means employees would be free to talk about their experiences without fear of being judged. This might seem like a new and valuable freedom for those who felt they had to keep their experiences secret. But things might not be so simple.
Try to be yourself
In the 1970s, the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote,
“one has to have an inverted image of power to believe that all those voices … repeating the formidable injunction to tell what one is and what one does … are speaking to us of freedom“.
Foucault was writing about the Christian confessional rather than about chatting to office colleagues at the coffee machine, yet his point is still relevant in a modern workplace setting.
Foucault points out that we may often think that the ability to express who we are is a way of expressing our freedom from power. However, for him, it is essential to recognize that describing yourself as someone who thinks or feels certain things means that you are identified as a certain kind of person.
This means being subject to a certain kind of power. In other words, when a person talks about their mental health in the workplace, there is a danger that they can become tied, and possibly reduced, to it.
If an employee approaches a line manager or member of the HR team and explains that they have recently been experiencing low moods, there are two ways of seeing this. One is that the person is having a difficult time, but this is understandable given recent events. Perhaps they’ve broken up with their partner, or a family member has died.
Another way is to think that the person is naturally inclined to feel this way. This could involve beliefs about their genetic history or the idea that they have a depressive personality.
The key difference between these two versions of events is understanding the story as an experience the person has versus something the person is.
Your mental health does not define you
It may not be obvious why this distinction matters or why it might be a problem. After all, in both cases, the person seeks help and can expect support from the organization. The problem with understanding mental health as part of who we are is that it puts us in danger of ignoring how our environment dramatically affects our mental health.
Suppose an employee tells their line manager they are feeling stressed at work and struggling to cope. One way to respond is based on the belief that this person is someone who naturally gets stressed.
In this case, we might offer them support, possibly access to an employee assistance program such as those covered by My Mind News. The other way would be to look at other factors, for example, the person’s workload.
Maybe unreasonable demands are being made on that person, and they are being asked to do too much. Perhaps what they are expected to do and the volume of work would make anyone stressed.
While the aim of destigmatizing mental health in the workplace is admirable, we must consider what this entails. We need to understand the critical role that our day-to-day experiences, including experiences of work, have in shaping our mental health.
Unless we appreciate the effect of these experiences, we will simply be finding ways for people to cope rather than moving the situation on by helping them in a more meaningful way.
What are your thoughts on this article? Have you experienced issues regarding mental health in your workplace? Tell us more in the comments.