What next for mental health in the workplace?

This World Mental Health Day, David Smith, CEO of Hull and East Yorkshire Mind and ACEVO trustee, discusses how attitudes towards mental health problems in the workplace have changed, and what there is still to do

For those working in mental health, there are a number of awareness raising days to take part in every year. Mental Health Day on 10 October is the one that always makes me stop and think. What has changed in the last year? What difference have I made? Where has the impact been?

Like most of us working in charities and voluntary organisations, my primary focus is on our beneficiaries. What have we done to deliver on our charitable objectives for people living with mental health problems in our community, and what might we need to do differently to help more people next year?

The last couple of years have seen a marked change in our work as well as a change in who is asking for our help. After many years of campaigning and awareness raising the message is getting through that mental health support shouldn’t be all about crisis responses or support services but tackling issues much earlier: in schools, our communities and at work.

This final area – the workplace – has been one of the last bastions of taboo and stigma to open up to talking about, recognising, supporting and encouraging conversations about mental health. Seeing the number of new employer-led initiatives focusing on helping employees stay mentally well at work has been a joy to watch. Imagining how these will develop and grow over coming years gives considerable reassurance that future generations will have very different experiences at work to those in the past who had to hide, ignore and feel shame about a whole range of mental health conditions.

What’s next?

In many ways we’re still at the early stages of this revolution. Talking about things like stress, anxiety and mild depression is easy and often encouraged. The next difficult steps are helping employers and the wider world to understand and celebrate the benefits those with more serious mental health problems can bring to the workplace. A diagnosis of bipolar disorder or psychosis in itself should be no barrier to a successful career, yet at times it still feels like there is an acceptable ‘hierarchy’ of mental health problems with some that are still too tough, too unpredictable, challenging or not really understood enough to talk about.

I’m fortunate in my career to have had the opportunity to not only work with amazingly talented people who have lived experience of mental ill-health but also lived through my own experiences. The richness of this learning that has helped me develop the tools I need to do the job I do now.

We talk easily of diversity within our team but too often that is used as a shortcut for ethnicity or sexuality. Many of our workplaces still need to become truly diverse places where people, whatever their background, whatever challenges they’ve faced, are valued and appreciated for the fresh thought, insight and ideas they bring. Much of the wariness I see from potential employers of people with more serious mental health problems isn’t down to deliberate prejudice. It is more often down to a lack of real knowledge and a fear that saying the wrong thing to somebody, asking questions about their condition or even acknowledging their problems could cause them to react badly, become unwell and for some employers, the fear they might then require additional costly support or sick leave.

Although we’ve still got a way to go, charities, by the special nature of our purpose, are usually a little further ahead on this journey than other sectors. We need to lead by example, share our positive stories, make it OK for our own employees to talk about their experiences, challenge the narrative that there is no support available and offer training, support and encouragement whenever we get the opportunity.

The last 40 years have seen a seismic shift in the way we treat mental illness. The last 15 years in the way we talk about mental health. The last 10 has seen stigma and discrimination drastically reduce and the last five has seen mental health in the workplace become a genuine priority for many employers. This is good news we need to celebrate!

Roll on the next decade.

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