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Dissolving mental health stigma in the working world

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Geoff McDonald wants to change the way we work forever, he says we need dedicated emotional and mental health education from a young age ensuring the stigma will fade for good, McDonald is the former VP of HR at global consumer goods giant, Unilever.

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After leaving the corporate world, McDonald has co-founded the mental health network, Minds@Work a network intent on equipping and inspiring individuals to break down the stigma when it comes to mental ill health at work.

McDonald has his own personal reasons for advocating the importance of mental health in such a passionate and devoted way. He shares exclusively with HRD Connect.

Personal experiences

I’ve got three very personal experiences around mental health in the workplace. The first is my very own crucible moment back in 2008 when I got extremely ill – I had severe anxiety and depression.

I had no idea I was suffering from anxiety and depression. It was midnight on 25th January 2008, I woke up with a massive panic attack. I genuinely thought I was having a heart attack I’d never experienced a heart attack, I’d never known anyone to have a panic attack – it had never been part of my conversation, or even in my vocabulary before. It was only when I went to the doctors and got diagnosed with anxiety fueled depression. When I look at it back now in retrospect there were symptoms – I just didn’t know what they were at the time.

I had to take three months off work. The only thing that kept me alive during my illness was my ability to talk about being unwell. The support I received when talking about it made me realise how much I was loved, it was that sense of love that kept me alive throughout some very dark weeks and months. Imagine what might have befallen me had I not spoken about my illness?

I had a relapse in 2010, which wasn’t as bad as 2008 because I’d learnt to manage myself better and I didn’t take time off work – getting myself better was a much smoother process. These were my first few experiences of mental ill health in the workplace.

There is some truly amazing work being done, especially in the last three or four years in this country around raising awareness. But now we need to act, we’ve got the awareness – now we need to do.

Stigma kills

I recall another experience some years back, I was walking home, and I got a phone call from my wife telling me that one of my close friends had committed suicide that afternoon.

I lay in bed that night thinking about my gregarious, funny, and positively fun-loving friend who was now gone – the brighter the light, the darker the shadow. I thought to myself, ‘stigma has killed my friend’. The stigma was so strong for my friend that he felt he couldn’t talk to anyone about how he felt. I think it had a lot to do with being a male, he might have felt that he had an alpha-male image to uphold.

I thought about how unfair it was, how we live in the 21st century and we can’t even talk about our mental ill health in the workplace.? Which led me to where I am now, actively campaigning and advocating mental health at work.

Back in 2013, I started to work with the then head of HR at Unilever UK, Tim Munden. This was focused on breaking the stigma around mental health within UK businesses. I decided around that time that I was going to leave Unilever and go out into the world and purposefully help to ensure that in workplaces all over the world everyone feels like they genuinely have the choice to ask for help if they are suffering from a mental illness.

I know that in every single global workplace, everybody feels like they genuinely have that choice if they are suffering from a physical illness. There is, to my knowledge, no workplace anywhere in the world that somebody wouldn’t tell someone about a psychical illness they are suffering from – so why in this day and age, when we talk about AI, driverless motorcars – why can’t we feel that we genuinely have the choice to ask for help if you are suffering from a mental health condition. The areas I focus on are very much anxiety, depression and bipolar. I want to create workplaces where people will feel comfortable to talk about those occurrences within their life.

I know in some schools, and universities there is a great emphasis on talking about mental health, helping people to not get ill in the first place. The newly educated generation of leaders will emerge in time. They will be better informed than the last, and the topic will be normalised for them.

The catalyst

I think part of the issue around addressing both mental and emotional health in the workplace is giving others understanding. It’s not like when you fall down the stairs and you’ve obviously broken your leg and that’s what caused the broken leg. I think with emotional and mental illness it’s not always as clear cut as that. Yes, there were stresses and strains that I went through at work but if I’m honest my lifestyle was extremely go, go, go I never allowed myself time to recover, and never even thought about how I should be maintaining my emotional mental health because no-one had ever taught me. I think it was a combination of factors that resulted in me having my crucible moment. Having said that, read Dying For The Pay Cheque by Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer making the case that businesses need to recognise what they are doing and how they are significantly contributing to people’s stress and therefore chronic disease and mental illness and they need to take some responsibility.

An education for all

In general, I think there has been an entire lack of education and understanding around mental health therefore creating a vacuum that is filled with stigma. We label this as weakness and not being able to cope. But for me, and many others this is about educating and shifting the narrative around mental health. We have such positive narratives when we discuss physical health, you go into a Nike shop and see ‘chiseled whippets’ everywhere, which inspire you. But when it comes to mental health the only associated images are people with their head in the hands and consistently very dark – which don’t evoke inspirational, or aspirational feelings. How do we craft a narrative that says – mental health could be a competitive advantage in a very knowledge driven economy that we live in today?

There is some truly amazing work being done, especially in the last three or four years in this country around raising awareness. However, we now we need to act, we’ve got the awareness – now we need to do. I know in some schools, and universities there is a great emphasis on talking about mental health, helping people to not get ill in the first place. The newly educated generation of leaders will emerge in time. They will be better informed than the last, and the topic will be normalised for them. Current leaders and senior members of staff have generally have not been educated about emotional and mental health, therefore stigma is sadly prevalent. We need to continually provide education around emotional and mental health in schools and universities.

We’ve always spoken about health and safety at work, but we’re only really talking about safety. We’ve created safe workplaces for people to work in, but in actual fact I think we are creating very unhealthy workplaces today. A book has just come out by a professor at Stanford University, Jeffrey Pfeffer, called Dying For The Paycheck in which he highlights a direct correlation between chronic disease, mental ill health and stress. It’s sad that we haven’t recognised what Pfeffer calls ‘a social pollution’ and a very inconvenient truth that is taking place in workplaces today. We’ve created workplaces where people are feeling stressed, which links to diseases and poor mental health. We’ve equipped our workplaces for safety, why can’t we do it for health?

The only reason we’ve done it for safety is because there is legislation, therefore I wonder when is the first big lawsuit going to hit an organisation regarding its role in contributing to a chronic disease or tragedy due to their personal mental health? I don’t want us to wait for this to happen – we need healthy workplaces now. Healthier people are more energised, therefore more enthusiastic about their job. It seems like a no-brainer, however organisations are still reticent to create healthy workplaces. We need to be authentic about it – think about it, if a business leader were to put an employee on the top of a crane at the top of the building. That leader knows that they are putting the employee in a very unsafe place, however would provide them with safety resources – with this image in mind why aren’t we doing everything possible to keep people mentally safe and healthy, like we would for the person at the top of a crane?

With both organisational and individual accountability lacking mental health will always remain a tick box exercise.  

Communicating to employer

I worked for an amazing organisation who cared, and its heritage is based on care – Unilever. At the time, I had two bosses who were unbelievably supportive. One of them had a friend who had suffered from depression therefore understood and was able to give me the right kind of support. If my boss didn’t have that friend and lacked understanding I might not have been as open. In general, I think a lot of organisations have lost sight of how important relationships are, a very strong relationship we have at work sadly is with our mobile phones and laptops. We’re limited on our social interaction and people might not feel comfortable speaking with a peer or boss. Personally, I was very lucky – my boss did care.

Mental health shouldn’t just be a tick box exercise

I’ve spent four years working across an array of sectors and I still see the general consensus of mental health and wellbeing as a ‘tick box’ exercise.

We’ve got a mental health awareness week, and a wellbeing week where we’ll show some care for a week and then go back to whatever we were doing before. I have a theory why, I think two things are missing. The first is the lack of organisational accountability to maintain the health of people, which only exists on the safety side but not when considering health. Secondly, there is no individual accountability to maintain health – it shouldn’t just fall to the organisation, individuals need to also be accountable for maintaining their own health. We treat people like units of production – we need to know you have the skills, we want to know if you have the knowledge, or if you have the experience, but why isn’t energy and health ever brought into these performance management conversations? Which is the most important driver. With both organisational and individual accountability lacking mental health will always remain a tick box exercise.

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